Eye-to-Eye Contact in Conversation Is Rarer Than You Might Think

FRIDAY, Nov. 18, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Have a hard time looking others in the eye?

You aren’t alone, Canadian researchers report.

Eye-to-eye contact rarely occurs when two people are talking, they found.

“We discovered that participants spent only about 12% of conversation time in interactive looking, meaning that they gazed at each other's faces simultaneously for just 12% of the interaction duration,” said lead researcher Florence Mayrand, a doctoral student with the McGill University department of psychology in Montreal.

“Even more surprisingly, within those interactions, participants engaged in mutual eye-to-eye contact only 3.5% of the time,” Mayrand added in a university news release.

But when someone does look you in the eye, take note -- the gesture communicates nonverbal information that’s vital for future interaction, the researchers noted.

For the study, the research team paired up participants and presented them with an imaginary survival scenario.

In this scenario, they had to rank a list of items in order of their usefulness for survival, all while wearing mobile eye-tracking glasses.

Researchers analyzed how often participants looked at each others’ eyes and mouths, as well as whether they followed the other person’s gaze.

During the interactions, participants spent more time looking away than looking at their partner’s faces, researchers found.

When they did look at each others’ faces, they looked equally often at the mouth and the eyes, and spent little time in mutual eye-to-eye contact.

But when pairs did look directly into each other’s eyes, one of them was more likely to follow their partner’s gaze afterwards.

“We found that, surprisingly, direct eye-to-eye contact was quite rare during interactions, but that it is significant for social dynamics,” Mayrand said. “The time we engage in eye-to-eye contact, even if for a few seconds, appears to be an important predictive factor for subsequent social behavior.”

The findings were published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

Follow-up research might focus on what messages are conveyed by eye gaze, and whether what’s being said influences a person’s gaze patterns during interactions.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more about social connectedness.

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