The communicative power of eye contact might well be a myth, if a recent Australian experiment is indicative.
Making eye contact with another person is considered to be a highly effective way of concentrating the transition of messages, so much so that it has long passed into the realms of cliché. People fall in love when they gaze into each other’s eyes; salespeople close deals by doing the same thing; vampires suck the will from their victims by locking their gaze, long before they suck the blood from their veins.
Now, however, research led by psychologist Shane Rogers of Edith Cowan University in Western Australian suggests that the special attraction of eye contact is possibly hogwash. It is entirely possible that true love sparks when strangers gaze upon each others mouths. Or ears.
To reach such a conclusion, Rogers and colleagues set up four-minute interviews between a researcher and 46 volunteers. Both interrogator and respondent wore spectacles fitted with eye-tracking technology.
For the encounters with 23 of the volunteers the researcher spent most of the time looking directly at eyes. For the rest, gaze was directed squarely at the mouth.
After each encounter the volunteers were asked to rate how much they enjoyed the conversation – and how much they thought the researcher was looking them in the eye.
“The mouth group perceived the same amount of eye contact and enjoyed the conversations just as much as the eye group,” Rogers reveals.
He suggests that despite the piles of more-or-less poetic literature extolling the virtues and importance of eye-to-eye contact, people aren’t actually very good at determining when it is happening.
“People are not very sensitive to the specific gaze focus of their partner to their face; instead they perceive direct gaze towards their face as eye contact,” he notes.
The finding, he adds, can be seen as good news for people who suffer from social anxiety and find maintaining eye contact is stressful. Henceforth, they can look directly at some other part of someone’s facial anatomy without risk of being thought rude.
Overall, though, if the findings are confirmed by further experiments, Rogers and his colleagues have signalled a terrible blow to the self-esteem of romanticists and real estate agents alike.
“Maintaining strong eye contact is widely accepted to be an important communication skill in western cultures,” Rogers notes.
“People believe if you aren’t willing to engage in soul-to-soul mutual eye contact then you are at best lacking in confidence, at worst, untrustworthy. However, the reverence devoted to eye contact is not supported by scientific evidence.”
The research is published in the journal Perception.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.