What Research Can Teach Us About Improving Our Eye Contact
For those of us who live in the Western World, the proper use of eye contact is one of the keys to success. People who master "the art of the gaze" tend to excel in life. Eye contact is used, often sub-consciously, to determine trustworthiness, intention, and connection. Along with our smile, eye contact makes up the foundation of non-verbal communication. Thankfully, there has been a lot of research in this field that can help us to remove uncertainty and grow in confidence.
The Power of Eye Contact
Research shows that eye-contact encourages pro-social behaviors. This encouraging finding leads me to believe that we are more likely to be kind to one another, as a result of the proper use of eye contact. It can also influence how attractive, mature, and likable others perceive us to be.1 Americans have been found to rate each other more favorably as eye contact increases.2 There seems to be no end to the impact eye contact has in our everyday life.
Advertisers have known for longer than academia that if the spokesperson on a cereal box is positioned to make eye contact in the grocery aisle, it can increase feelings of trust and connection to the brand. In fact, the eye contact coming from a picture on their product can make us more likely to choose it over another brand.3
A study from Aberdeen University confirms that we are more attracted to people who share a smile along with eye contact. A smile without eye contact doesn't have the same effect. Making eye contact, without a smile is better than a smile alone. However, making eye contact, and offering a smile, is scientifically proven to improve how others perceive us.4
The studies strongly support the belief that eye-contact comes with many benefits. Folk wisdom in western culture has stressed the importance of eye contact for much longer, and it seems that science is just starting to catch up. The great thing is that it’s a skill that can be learned! The research doesn't just agree that it’s important, science can also help us to feel less doubt about how to use it.
When and for How Long?
If you didn’t need science to know how much importance society places on eye-contact, you might be more interested in learning how to remove some of the guesswork.
Recently, British researchers found that pupil dilation is the most significant indicator of how long someone is comfortable holding eye contact.5 If you meet someone's gaze and notice their pupils dilate, you can be confident that they are comfortable holding the gaze. On the other hand, if their pupils start to shrink, that’s a good sign to look away. On average the participants felt comfortable with eye contact that lasted about 3 seconds. Using this as a guide, I can feel comfortable with a little less than that when crossing paths with a stranger, and a little longer when it's someone I'm close with.
This finding has helped me to stop worrying about one aspect of eye contact. Now, when I find myself making eye-contact with people throughout the day, I just keep in mind 3 seconds as a general rule for how long it should last. If I can pay attention to pupil dilation, I learn even more. It can feel overwhelming trying to remember all of these details and still hold a conversation. Let's not overthink it in the middle of an interaction.
Research has shown that it can be difficult to speak and maintain eye contact at the same time.6 That would explain why people seem to look away a considerable amount of time when talking. However, keeping eye contact for about 30% of the time when relaying information to someone makes them more likely to remember what you shared.7 What I gather from these studies, is that as a Speaker in a conversation, making less eye contact helps me to concentrate, and as a listener eye contact helps me to remember. Generally speaking I employ more eye contact when listening, and less when speaking.
Getting Comfortable with Eye Contact
I recently read a book called The Power of Eye Contact by Michael Ellsberg. This book is a wonderful resource, and I would very much recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this invaluable skill. I'll be reading it again soon.
His guidance can help you to meet more people, build stronger connections, and gain confidence. All by improving our eye contact.
Along with the other wisdom in this book, Michael shares this tip for getting more comfortable making eye contact:
"While you walk down the sidewalk (during daylight hours!) look at the eyes of every person walking towards you, long enough to see their eye colour. Then look away. That's it.
I've been practicing this one for years, and never have I had a single negative experience from it. It's the single best exercise I know for becoming more comfortable with eye contact quickly. You'd be amazed at how willing people are on the street to connect with you briefly through the eyes."
Here are some suggestions, he adds, for our practice:
- Try to maintain a soft neutral expression on your face. Neither displaying sexual or aggressive intent.
- Don't make eye contact too soon. Make eye contact about 4 to 5 paces away, and it should last for less than a pace.
- When you break eye-contact, you should do it to the side, not up or down. Breaking eye contact upwards indicates superiority, and downwards is the "look of shame."
The Eyes Have It
It's been immensely helpful for myself, to go through all of the research, and find the best resources possible to improve socially and feel more comfortable making my way through the world. Hopefully, the results of my studies are as useful for you as they have been for me!
As I said at the beginning of this article, eye contact and smiling are the foundations of non-verbal communication. If you'd like to find out about what the research can teach us about smiling feel free to check out the article I wrote on that subject:
- Improve Your Smile for a Better Life, With Science!
There is a lot of research about the benefits of smiling as well as what people consider to be a genuine smile. Your smile has so much to offer! There's no need to leave it to chance.
- Watching Eyes effects: When others meet the self
- Attributions of self-esteem as a function of duration of eye contact
- Why Is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?
- Integrating Gaze Direction and Expression in Preferences for Attractive Faces
- Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration
- When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation
- Effect of gazing at the camera during a video link on recall
© 2018 Jonathan Livingston