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The Subtle Dance of Eye Contact in Conversation

The importance of making and breaking eye contact.

Key points

  • Eye contact plays a key role in making a good social impression and regulating face-to-face conversation.
  • Good conversations involve a sense of synchrony between partners. This has been measured as synchrony in pupil dilation.
  • Researchers examined the role of eye contact in creating synchrony in conversation.
  • Surprisingly, they found that eye contact disrupts synchrony. Great conversation involves a dance of making and breaking eye contact.
Christin Hume / Unsplash
Source: Christin Hume / Unsplash

You’ve probably heard that eye contact is vital in making a good social impression. Our eyes are our most expressive facial feature. They can communicate a range of social cues and emotions, which can profoundly influence your social interactions. Looking directly or averting our gaze has powerful consequences.

Research finds that direct gaze is associated with confidence, interest, and attraction, while an averted gaze of looking away is related to lack of confidence, rejection, and being socially ostracized. In addition, many people consider eye contact to be a sign of trustworthiness. We are more likely to believe a person who’s looking straight at us. On the other hand, not looking someone in the eye is often associated with lying. So, if you want to build trust with another person, you have to be comfortable making eye contact.

When we are in a conversation, we usually want to make a good impression. So it’s easy to get self-conscious about making eye contact. You don’t want to stare the other person down, but you might signal disapproval, lack of interest, or even dishonesty if you look away. However, you may find that your conversations seem to go the best when you’re not thinking about making eye contact at all. It just happens naturally.

A complex orchestra of eye movement, facial expressions, and posture shifts are part of any great conversation. When those elements hum along together, we feel deeply engaged with, and connected to, our conversation partner. It is as if we are in sync with them. Though if you stop to analyze it in the moment – the magic seems to evaporate!

Researchers have found that synchrony of our pupil dilation serves as a marker of our shared attention in conversation. The pupils get larger and smaller as a reflexive response to changes in light and, also, when we’re physiologically aroused. The researchers tracked eye movements in speakers as they described positive or negative memories about their life. They then tracked the eye movements of people listening to the same stories. They found that the pupil dilation of the listeners synchronized to that of the speakers when there were emotional peaks in the stories. So, pupil dilation served as a marker for people being on the same page.

In a recent study, the researchers wanted to extend those earlier findings by studying face-to-face conversation to see how eye contact might influence shared attention in real time. So they put participants who had not previously met into conversational pairs and asked them to talk for ten minutes about anything they wanted while their eye movements were tracked. Participants also watched the videos of their conversations and rated their remembered level of engagement moment to moment.

The researchers expected eye contact to serve the function of getting people back onto the same wavelength. That is, the onset of eye contact should have led to a subsequent increase in synchrony of their pupils. But, instead, they found the opposite: the moment of making eye contact marked a peak in shared attention, but not the beginning of a sustained period of locked gazes. Furthermore, the synchrony dropped sharply after looking into the eyes of the conversation partner, and only began to recover when the two looked away from each other. So eye contact doesn’t create synchrony, but it seems to disrupt it.

However, the participants also reported being more engaged when they were making eye contact. The researchers reasoned that this making and breaking of eye contact must do something to help the conversation. When we break the synchrony, we can move back into our heads to bring in new information to contribute and keep the conversation going. Research shows eye movements also coordinate with cognitive function – such as recalling information or sharing a story. Try this: Tell a story while looking into the eyes of another. You’ll probably find that you need to break eye contact to recall information and keep the conversation going.

When two people converse, their pupils periodically synchronize, marking moments of shared attention. As synchrony peaks, eye contact occurs, and synchrony declines, only to recover as eye contact breaks. These findings suggest that eye contact may be a key mechanism for coordinating shared and independent modes of thought, allowing the conversation to weave together and evolve over the course of these ebbs and flows in shared attention. This subtle dance of eye contact found in face-to-face communication may be one reason why it often feels more satisfying than conversations on Zoom.

References

Hietanen, J. “Affective Eye Contact: An Integrative Review,” Frontiers in Psychology no. 9 (28 Aug. 2018) 1587. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01587

Kang, O., & Wheatley, T. (2017). Pupil dilation patterns spontaneously synchronize across individuals during shared attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(4), 569–576. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000271

Wohltjen, S. Thalia Wheatley, T. “Eye contact marks the rise and fall of shared attention in conversation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2021, 118 (37) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2106645118

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