Did you ever play the Eye Contact Game as a kid? You’re supposed to sit directly across from another person and stare into his or her eyes for as long as possible while keeping a straight face. I don’t think I won a single game; every attempt would end in a fit of nervous giggles. And as an adult, I feel even weirder locking eyes with someone for too long. There’s just something about prolonged eye contact that makes you feel vulnerable and exposed, as if the person looking into your eyes has access to your inner thoughts and feelings. A loved one’s lingering look can trigger a rush of happiness, but too much eye contact with an acquaintance or a stranger can bring on sudden discomfort. How, exactly, does eye contact affect us, anyway?
The Look of Love
That old adage about eyes being the window to our inner selves isn’t far from the truth. We can feign a frown or a smile, but it’s harder to fake expressions from the nose up. A true smile will produce crow’s feet, and someone who’s angry will narrow his eyes a bit, according to body-language experts. We learn a lot by looking into another person’s eyes, a behavior that’s ingrained in us from the start. As babies, we use adults’ gazes to figure out what’s worth our attention. In a 2002 study published in Developmental Psychology, researchers found that infants followed people’s eye direction, rather than head direction. Eye contact also helps our younger selves with memory recall. Researchers at MIT discovered that four-month-olds were more likely to recognize someone later if he or she made direct eye contact.
Over time, we learn the difference between eye contact that makes our hearts flutter and eye contact that makes us cringe internally. Oxytocin, also known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone, plays a big part in that. It’s a feel-good chemical that’s released when we feel bonded with someone, either emotionally or physically. The release is prompted by a warm hug, holding hands, falling in love, and so forth. A recent article in Biological Psychiatry postulated that oxytocin’s the reason we’re so inclined to make prolonged eye contact with our loved ones. And Dr. Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, the author of The Oxytocin Factor, believes that eye contact can bring about oxytocin release as well. Perhaps that’s why gazing into the eyes of someone you don’t feel emotionally close with can feel so wrong—the oxytocin might be there, but it’s not for the right reasons. It’s also why eye contact is deemed so essential for couples trying to reconnect. Looking deeply into each other’s eyes might rekindle forgotten feelings.
A Simple Gaze Inspires Complex Behaviors
Even if we don’t appreciate meaningful glances from just anybody, we do look favorably upon those who look directly at us. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen asked a group of people to look at two pictures of faces that were almost identical—the only difference was that one face had eyes looking away and the other’s eyes looked into the camera, mimicking eye contact. Whether the subjects smiled or looked disgusted didn’t make much difference; instead, men and women found the faces making eye contact most attractive and likable. According to the journal Nature, the brain’s reward center is activated when one makes eye contact with a good-looking person. Not only do we like looking at attractive people, but it makes us feel even better when they look our way.
Because eye contact is linked directly to our emotions, it has an effect on our behavior, too, as researchers at Tufts University proved. Study participants encountered a dime left in a phone booth and were approached by a random person claiming it as his or her own. When that person made eye contact with the participants, they were more likely to give back the dime. Having someone look directly at them made them more honest, probably because their inner thoughts—namely, “This dime isn’t mine”—seemed exposed.
Direct gazes also prompt increased participation from people in groups because it makes them feel more included. Dr. Roel Vertegaal, an expert on eye communication between humans, showed that the amount of eye contact a person received during a group conversation was proportional to how much he or she participated. Eye contact also forces us to pay attention more: a 2005 joint study by the University of Wolverhampton and the University of Stirling found that viewers remembered what a speaker said better if he looked directly into the camera at least 30 percent of the time.
This improved attention to detail shifts the other way if someone’s expected to answer a question while making eye contact with someone else, as evidenced by a University of Stirling study. Kids answered questions correctly only 50 percent of the time if they had to look at someone while doing it; their scores improved significantly when they were allowed to avert their gazes. Eye contact requires so much mental work that it becomes difficult to think of much else in the process. It’s easy when our eyes are focusing on someone we trust and love; we can concentrate solely on the adoration, instead of on keeping up a conversation. But most of us can’t even look into an acquaintance’s eyes and keep a straight face, let alone attempt complex problem solving.
Use Eye Contact with Discretion
Eye contact can help us feel incredibly bonded or incredibly creeped out, depending on the person in view. It can make people more honest or make them appear more attractive. It has the power to enhance memory or cause us to forget everything else but the irises in front of us. Think of how many people we lock eyes with on a daily basis, be it at the grocery store or during a conversation with a coworker. It’s a wonder we can get anything done!
Luckily, there’s a social difference between strangers and loved ones when it comes to eye contact time limits. A certain amount is necessary for social functioning (how weird is it when the person you’re talking to refuses to look you in the eyes?), but anything more than that gets far too close for comfort. Though we do it all the time, eye contact is clearly one of the most intimate behaviors we engage in. We may look into people’s eyes throughout the day, but we reserve the prolonged kind of gazing for those we keep closest to our hearts.