Eye contact occurs when "two people look at each other's eyes at the same time."
In human beings, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. Coined in the early to mid-1960s, the term has come in the West to often define the act as a meaningful and important sign of confidence and social communication. The customs and significance of eye contact vary widely between cultures, with religious and social differences often altering its meaning greatly.
- 1 Social meanings of eye contact
- 2 The effectiveness of eye contact
- 3 Difficulty with eye contact
- 4 Cultural differences
- 5 Between species
- 6 See also
- 7 References
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.
Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.
Mutual eye contact that signals attraction initially begins as a brief glance and progresses into a repeated volleying of eye contact, according to Beverly Palmer, Ph.D. and professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
The effectiveness of eye contact
When two or more individuals talk, the person that talks is used to being looked at. Therefore, making eye contact is making other people expect conversation.
Parent–child eye contact
A 1985 study 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.
A person's direction of gaze may indicate to others where his/ her attention lies.
Eye contact and maternal sensitivity
In a 2001 study conducted in Germany examining German infants during their first 12 weeks of life, researchers studied the relationship between eye contact, maternal sensitivity and infant crying to attempt to determine if eye contact and maternal sensitivity were stable over time. In this correlational study, they began by categorizing the mother’s sensitivity placing them into one of four behavioral categories: inhibited/intense behavior, distortion of infant signals, over and understimulation, and aggressive behavior. Next, the observer video-taped the mother and infant’s free-play interactions on a weekly basis for 12 weeks. When watching the videos, they measured the mutual eye contact between the mother and the infant by looking at the overlap in time when the mother looked at the infant’s face and the infant looked at the mother’s face. The mothers were also asked to record their infant’s crying in a diary.
The study found that the amount of eye contact between the study's German mothers and infants increased continuously over the first 12 weeks. The mothers who held eye contact with their child early on (week 1-4) was described as sensitive to her infant whereas if she did not hold eye contact, her behavior was described as insensitive. They also found a negative relationship between eye contact and the duration of crying of the infants; as eye contact increases, crying decreases. Maternal sensitivity was also shown to be stable over time. According to the study, these findings may potentially be based on the assumption that sensitive mothers are more likely to notice their child’s behavioral problems than non-sensitive mothers.
Difficulty with eye contact
Eye aversion and mental processing
In one study conducted by British psychologists from the University of Stirling among 20 British children aged five, researchers concluded that among the children in the study, the children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions are more likely to answer correctly than children who maintain eye contact. While humans obtain useful information from looking at the face when listening to someone, the process of looking at faces is mentally demanding and takes processing. Therefore, it may be unhelpful to look at faces when trying to concentrate and process something else that's mentally demanding. Contrary to this, Doherty-Sneddon suggests that a blank stare indicates a lack of understanding.
Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's features except for the hands and face. Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited.
Japanese children are taught in school to direct their gaze at the region of their teacher's Adam's apple or tie knot. As adults, Japanese lower their eyes when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect.
In many cultures, such as East Asia and Nigeria, it is respectful not to 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"; references such as "shifty-eyed" can refer to suspicions regarding an individual's unrevealed intentions or thoughts. Nevertheless, the seeking of constant unbroken eye contact by the other participant in a conversation can often be considered overbearing or distracting by many even in western cultures, possibly on an instinctive or subconscious level.
Patterns of eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals are also well documented.
Animals of many species, including dogs, often perceive eye contact as a threat. Many programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog. According to a report in The New Zealand Medical Journal, maintaining eye contact is one reason young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks.
National Park officials recommend that visitors avoid direct eye contact if a 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.
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- Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices
- Evil eye
- Interpersonal communication
- Joint attention
- The look – description of interpersonal discomfort by Jean-Paul Sartre
- Staring contest
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