- Eye contact is an important, natural component of communication used to convey liking and attraction.
- Locking eyes play a role in reducing uncertainty within initial romantic interactions.
- Eye contact has no direct effect on romantic attraction but enhances self-disclosure.
We have all heard the advice: pay attention to your dining companion on a first date if you want a second. That means not looking at your phone but your partner/ prospective paramour. But does that mean you have to look them in the eye? And if so, can there be too much of a good thing? Research reveals some surprising, relevant results.
The Eyes Have It—Or Do They?
Emmelyn A. J. Croes et al. examined the role of eye contact within the context of initial romantic attraction (2020).i They described eye contact as one of the most important nonverbal cues used to communicate affection within romantic attraction and relational development dynamics. Recognizing its role within impression formation, they explain that eye contact plays a role in reducing uncertainty within initial romantic interactions because with more eye contact comes more nonverbal affiliative expressiveness. Accordingly, they recognized eye contact as a critical, natural component of communication used to convey liking and attraction and note that perhaps not surprisingly, mutual romantic attraction sparks more eye contact. But how does it work?
Croes et al. used speed-dating methodology to investigate the impact of eye contact on the development of romantic attraction and the role of interactive uncertainty reduction strategies in the form of self-disclosure and asking questions. Surprisingly, their results found that eye contact had no direct effect on romantic attraction. They did find, however, that within initial interactions, eye contact prompts less uncertainty, and more intimacy, as compared to communications without eye contact.
Looking Not Asking: More Eye-Contact, Fewer Questions
Croes et al. noted that although eye contact within initial interactions does not impact romantic attraction, it affects interaction because communication with eye contact is more nonverbally expressive, given that it enhances self-disclosure.
Accordingly, when communicating without eye contact, people tend to ask more questions to reduce uncertainty. Croes et al. found that as expected, with eye contact, people asked fewer questions and the questions were less intimate, suggesting that communicating without eye contact, such as on Skype, creates more uncertainty. They noted that a lack of eye contact creates less informative interaction, which generates more questions.
They explained that mutual gaze regulates communication, signals conversational turn-taking, and delivers feedback on receiving and perceiving messages. Without eye contact, more questions may be required to regulate the conversation. Croes et al. also noted that communicating with fewer cues, such as during text-based communication, results in more direct and intimate questioning—the same result when interacting with mutual visibility, but without eye contact. Croes et al. explained that their study results demonstrate that people can still form impressions of attractiveness without direct eye contact in communication situations.
Are Inquiring Minds More Attractive?
Are people more attractive if they ask more questions? Croes et al. reached a somewhat surprising conclusion here, too, discovering that asking questions and self-disclosing did not directly impact romantic attraction—a finding in conflict with prior research on uncertainty reduction, where asking questions and self-disclosing created more intimate interactions and more attraction.
However, they distinguish prior studies by the fact that they often focused on different communication modalities, such as text, and longer interaction time than their speed-dating experiment, where participants interacted for only five minutes. Specifically, Croes et al. cited a 2012 research study that found asking questions predicted verbalized affection during the second half of the conversation but not the first, suggesting the development of attraction over time.
Getting to know someone in a romantic context is best approached visually and verbally, and the best relationships develop gradually.
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[i] Croes, Emmelyn A. J., Marjolijn L. Antheunis, Alexander P. Schouten, and Emiel J. Krahmer. 2020. “The Role of Eye-Contact in the Development of Romantic Attraction: Studying Interactive Uncertainty Reduction Strategies during Speed-Dating.” Computers in Human Behavior 105 (April). doi:10.1016/j.chb.2019.106218.