Eye contact

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Two figures locking eyes in Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller

Eye contact occurs when "two people look at each other's eyes at the same time."[1]

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.[2] The customs and significance of eye contact vary widely between cultures, with religious and social differences often altering its meaning greatly.

The study of eye contact is sometimes known as oculesics.[3]

Social meanings of eye contact[edit]

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.[4]

In the process of civil inattention, strangers in close proximity, such as a crowd, avoid eye contact in order to help maintain their privacy.

The effectiveness of eye contact[edit]

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[edit]

A 1985 study suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard".[5] A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed.[6] A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze.[7] Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.[8][9]

Communicating attention[edit]

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

Facilitating learning[edit]

2000s studies suggest that eye contact has a positive impact on the retention and recall of information and may promote more efficient learning.[10][11][12]

Eye contact and maternal sensitivity[edit]

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.[13]

Difficulty with eye contact[edit]

Some people find eye contact more difficult than others. For example, those with autistic disorders or social anxiety may find eye contact to be particularly unsettling.[14]

Strabismus, especially esophoria or exophoria, interferes with normal eye contact: a person whose eyes are not aligned usually makes full eye contact with one eye only, while the orientation of the other eye deviates slightly or more.

Eye aversion and mental processing[edit]

In one study conducted by British psychologists from the University of Stirling[15] 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.[16] Contrary to this, Doherty-Sneddon suggests that a blank stare indicates a lack of understanding.[16]

Cultural differences[edit]

Two men staring each other in the eye during a political argument

Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's features except for the hands and face.[17] 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.[18]

In many cultures, such as East Asia and Nigeria,[19] 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.[20] 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.

Between species[edit]

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.[21] According to a report in The New Zealand Medical Journal,[22] 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.[21]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Eye contact". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Retrieved May 14, 2006.
  2. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eye%20contact
  3. ^ Krueger (2008), p. 6
  4. ^ Kearl, Mary (November 2008). "Psychology of Attraction". AOL Health. Archived from the original on July 2011. Retrieved August 2009. 
  5. ^ Samuels CA (August 1985). "Attention to eye contact opportunity and facial motion by three-month-old infants". J Exp Child Psychol 40 (1): 105–14. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(85)90067-0. PMID 4031786. 
  6. ^ Hains SM, Muir DW (October 1996). "Infant sensitivity to adult Pie direction". Child Dev 67 (5): 1940–51. doi:10.2307/1131602. JSTOR 1131602. PMID 9022223. 
  7. ^ Farroni T, Johnson MH, Csibra G (October 2004). "Mechanisms of eye gaze perception during infancy". J Cogn Neurosci 16 (8): 1320–6. doi:10.1162/0898929042304787. PMID 15509381. 
  8. ^ Reid VM, Striano T (March 2005). "Adult gaze influences infant attention and object processing: implications for cognitive neuroscience". Eur. J. Neurosci. 21 (6): 1763–6. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2005.03986.x. PMID 15845105. 
  9. ^ Brooks R, Meltzoff AN (November 2002). "The importance of eyes: how infants interpret adult looking behavior". Dev Psychol 38 (6): 958–66. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.38.6.958. PMC 1351351. PMID 12428707. 
  10. ^ Fullwood C, Doherty-Sneddon G (March 2006). "Effect of gazing at the camera during a video link on recall". Appl Ergon 37 (2): 167–75. doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2005.05.003. PMID 16081035. 
  11. ^ Mayer K (October 2005). "Fundamentals of surgical research course: research presentations". J. Surg. Res. 128 (2): 174–7. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2005.07.001. PMID 16243041. 
  12. ^ Estrada CA, Patel SR, Talente G, Kraemer S (June 2005). "The 10-minute oral presentation: what should I focus on?". Am. J. Med. Sci. 329 (6): 306–9. doi:10.1097/00000441-200506000-00010. PMID 15958872. 
  13. ^ Lohaus, A., Keller, H., & Voelker, S. (2001). Relationships between eye contact, maternal sensitivity, and infant crying. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(6), 542-548. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01650250042000528
  14. ^ http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=472
  15. ^ Phelps, F. G.; Doherty-Sneddon, G.; Warnock, H. (2006). "Helping children think: Gaze aversion and teaching". British Journal of Developmental Psychology 24 (3): 577. doi:10.1348/026151005X49872.  edit
  16. ^ a b "Pupils 'must look away to think'". BBC. 11 January 2006. Retrieved 30 March 2007. 
  17. ^ http://en.islamtoday.net/node/635
  18. ^ Robert T. Moran; Philip R. Harris; Sarah Virgilia Moran (2007). Managing cultural differences: global leadership strategies for the 21st century. Butterworth-Heinemann. pp. 64–. ISBN 978-0-7506-8247-3. Retrieved 17 December 2010. 
  19. ^ Galanti, Geri-Ann (2004). Caring for patients from different cultures. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8122-1857-2. 
  20. ^ Kathane, Raj (June 2004). "BMJ Careers: Adapting to British culture". BMJ 328 (7454): 273. 
  21. ^ a b Primal Health
  22. ^ Booker, Jarrod (11 August 2007). "'Eye contact' likely cause for dog attacks". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 30 September 2011.