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How We Read People's Minds Through Their Eyes

Where do we look when we think no one's looking?

Juice Team/Shutterstock
Source: Juice Team/Shutterstock

Which would you rather hang in your living room—a picture of an empty chair, or a picture of somebody sitting in that chair?

Our gaze is naturally drawn to other people, and even a portrait of an unknown person wouldn’t be out of place over the mantle or behind the sofa. Yet a portrait of an empty chair would be bizarre. We’d probably even invent some reason why there’s no person in the picture: Maybe that’s the chair the artist’s mother always sat in, and he’s painted it empty to convey his profound feeling of loss at her passing away? At any rate, there’s still a person implied, and we’d be hard pressed to accept the painting as simply the portrait of a chair. Why would you paint such a thing?

We spend a lot of time looking at other people, especially at their faces. We’re also told to look other people in the eye when we speak to them, and we may feel awkward when a person we’re talking to keeps looking away.

Most research on eye gaze has measured people’s eye movements as they interact with still images or moving videos of other people on a computer screen. In these tasks, participants spend far more of their time looking at people than they do inanimate objects such as chairs. However, University of Waterloo psychologist Evan Risko and his colleagues think that there’s much more to the story of where we cast our gaze when we’re out in the real world with other people.

Society bombards us with conflicting rules: We’re told to look other people in the eye. Yet we’re also told not to stare. And whether we stare or not may depend on what we think we can get away with.

In one experiment, participants were seated across from a stranger in a waiting room while experimenters secretly tracked their eye gaze. These people rarely looked at the stranger. In fact, they actually spent more time looking at an empty chair that had also been placed in the room.

Another group of participants watched a live video feed of a person sitting in a waiting room. This time, the results were reversed. Now the people spent most of their time staring at the other person, and very little time looking at the empty chair.

According to Risko and his colleagues, these results are due to what he calls “civil inattention.” Eye gaze is a signal of what we’re paying attention to, and hence what we’re interested in. It’s socially awkward to occupy a space with another person and not engage in conversation. Yet striking up a conversation with a stranger is difficult for many people, and we may deem it not worth the effort if it’s unlikely we’ll ever see that person again. So we instead we act as though we haven’t noticed each other. Of course, when we think the other person doesn’t know we’re looking, we give our voyeuristic bent free rein.

Even when we engage in face-to-face encounters, whether we gaze or look away depends on multiple factors. When researchers asked participants to interact with another person via what they believed to be a two-way video feed, they tended to make more eye contact when that person was thought to be socially inferior to them, and they looked away more when interacting with a perceived social superior. However, when they believed that the other person could not see them, the results reversed again—that is, they looked more at the social "superior" and less at the social "inferior."

Social superiors naturally garner our interest, but we may feel embarrassed to look an important person in the eye. Thus, we stare intently as the president addresses the nation on TV. But in a face-to-face meeting, we’d probably cast our gaze downward. Behavior like this is likely due to more than just social norms, since our primate cousins also use eye gaze to signal social status.

Because it’s so easy for others to infer what we’re thinking from our eye gaze, we also engage in civil inattention if revealing our thoughts would cause us embarrassment. In a third study, participants were fitted with eye tracking devices and asked to wait alone in a room until it was time for the experiment to begin. A provocative poster of a model in a swimsuit hung on one wall. Participants who had been told that the devices were already recording looked away from the poster. Participants led to believe that the devices were not yet recording, however ... well, you can guess where they gazed much of the time.

We tend to look directly at an object we’re attending to since doing so casts its image into the center of our visual field, where we see things most clearly. Psychologists call this overt attention, because when we look at an object, others around us know what we’re paying attention to. Yet we also have the ability to pay attention to objects outside the center of our visual field. Psychologists call this covert attention, because it appears that we’re looking at one thing while really paying attention to something else.

There’s some pretty sophisticated mind reading going on when we engage in covert attention. If I see you looking at that swimsuit model, I know what you’re thinking. And if I look at her, I know that you’ll know what I’m thinking. Sure, I want to gawk at her, but I don’t want you to think that I’m interested in that sort of thing. So I turn my gaze away from her—only not too far, so she’s still within my range of covert attention.


Risko, E. F., Richardson, D. C., & Kingstone, A. (2016). Breaking the fourth wall of cognitive science: Real-world social attention and the dual function of gaze. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 70-74.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).