Eye contact

Eye contact

Eye contact is an event in which two people look at each other's eyes at the same time. It is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. Frequency and interpretation of eye contact vary between cultures and species. The study of eye contact is sometimes known as oculesics.

Social meanings of eye contact

Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information; people, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other's eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.

In some parts of the world, particularly in East Asia, eye contact can provoke misunderstandings between people of different nationalities. Keeping direct eye contact with a work supervisor or elderly people leads them to assume you are being aggressive and rude — the opposite reaction of most Western societies.

Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.

The effectiveness of eye contact

Mother/child eye contact

A 1985 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard". A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed. A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze. Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.

Other explanations

Communicating attention

A person's direction of gaze may indicate to others where his or her attention lies.

Facilitating learning

Recent studies suggests that eye contact has a positive impact on the retention and recall of information and may promote more efficient learning.

Cultural differences

In Islam, Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's faces and eyes after the initial first eye contact, other than their legitimate partners or family members, in order to avoid potential unwanted desires. Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited. This means that eye contact between any man and woman is allowed only for a second or two. This is a must in most Islamic schools, with some exceptions depending on the case, like when teaching, testifying, or looking at a girl for marriage. If allowed, it is only allowed under the general rule: "No-Desire", clean eye-contact. Otherwise, it is not allowed, and considered "adultery of the eyes".

In many cultures it is respectful to not look the dominant person in the eye, but in Western culture this can be interpreted as being "shifty-eyed", and the person judged badly because "he wouldn't look me in the eye".

Eye aversion and mental processing

A study by University of Stirling psychologists concluded that children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions had higher rates of correct answers than children who maintained eye contact. One researcher theorized that looking at human faces requires a lot of mental processing, which detracts from the cognitive task at hand. Researchers also noted that a blank stare indicated a lack of understanding.

Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon was quoted as having said,


In adults, eye contact shows personal involvement and creates intimate bonds. Mutual gaze narrows the physical gap between humans.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device called the Interrotron which allowed his interview subjects to make direct eye contact with Morris while simultaneously looking directly into the filming camera. It allows the film's viewers to maintain eye contact with the people in Morris' films, giving what some describe as a more intimate acquaintance with them.

Between species

The eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals is also well documented. Young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks because they maintain eye contact, which the dog perceives as aggression, according to a report in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

In many species, eye contact is often perceived as a threat. Many programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog.

In the 1990’s, black bears returned to Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park after a twenty-year absence. Visitors are recommended to avoid direct eye contact if the bear stands on its hind legs. Chimpanzees use eye contact to signal aggression in hostile encounters, and staring at them in a zoo can induce agitated behavior.

See also


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