The Power of Eye Contact

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“Eyes” by Henri Matisse, 1951.

Have you ever been sitting in some public place — say, a cafe or subway — and you glance up and see somebody really attractive? Attractive in a sense you can’t really explain. They’re just your type. Maybe it’s their clothes, or their hair, or their face, or height, or all of these put together. You go back to reading that book you were holding, but, now, you can’t really focus on the book as well as you were before. You can’t help but glance up again once in a while. They’re just minding their business, and you, yours — but you catch yourself more focused on that person than whatever you were doing before. While you realize this, you also realize that he/she/they just glanced at you!

All of a sudden, you’re overwhelmed by this incredible sense of self-awareness. They just saw you — which means they saw your face, your outfit, the coffee you ordered. You start to think, geez, man, I’m existing like crazy right now, and it scares the hell out of me. It makes you insecure. You look back down at your book and pretend to read, but all you’re thinking about is that half-second interaction. Does your hair look OK? Are your shoes tied? Is there a booger on your nose? God, I hope not.

What is it about this exact moment that throws you into such a self-aware rut? Before that mystery person came around, you were still sitting there, still existing, with your hair in the right place and boogers kept securely in your nostrils. But all of a sudden, you’re second-guessing it all. Your perspective of yourself has shifted — you’re worried about these little things, when, moments ago, you weren’t thinking about yourself at all.

Consider a conversation you’ve had on a date with somebody. You’re just getting to know them, and it’s usually a little awkward. You’re racking your brain with questions to ask: Do you like your job? What’s your major? You like traveling, right? Ever been to the Grand Canyon? Oh, cool, me neither. When they’re answering your questions, you’re looking at them, of course — but only carefully enough to seem casual about the whole situation. There’s occasional eye contact, but not a lot of it. You answer their questions in a casual manner, but you’re looking around at the environment you’re in, only looking back in their eyes once in a while when talking.

Eye contact is phenomenally powerful to our subconscious. We tend to feel nervous when somebody talks to us with a little too much eye contact, and feel shunned when somebody talks to us while looking down at their feet the whole time. Of course, eye contact can determine the way we feel about a person’s trustworthiness much of the time; when somebody tells you something while retaining eye contact, we are more likely to believe them than if they had said the same thing with eyes glued to the floor. This is pretty obvious — bad liars do a pretty awful job at looking at one’s eyes when explaining that they, in fact, did not take a cookie from the cookie jar. But eye contact doesn’t just give us hints as to somebody’s trustworthiness. Eye contact determines other factors; their attractiveness, personal connection, and influence, as well.

When we’re sitting there in that moment, accidentally making eye contact with this attractive mystery person, we subconsciously perceive them more than we would anybody else. They become memorable figures in our minds; we are able to remember their existence more often than if they hadn’t looked at us at all. Maybe you’ll go to bed at night thinking about that moment of eye contact. You’ll see attractive people anywhere you go, but… this was different! Even more interestingly, when we make eye contact with somebody, we tend to pedestalize them; we assume that they’re especially sophisticated and able-minded. We assume that they’re sincere and socially aware, without knowing anything about them. Conversely, when people persistently avoid eye contact with us — whether out of nervousness, guilt, etc. — we consider them to be less sincere and conscientious.

The amount of time spent making eye contact is important, too. Ever talk to somebody who makes a little too much eye contact? You know, a coworker who just gives you that thousand-yard stare, as if they’re unlocking your soul while you talk about what movie you’re gonna watch after you clock out for the day. We tend to feel a sense of nervousness or insecurity around them, the same way we, on the other hand, feel a bit detached from those who don’t make enough eye contact. In a study done by London University research associate Nicola Binetti, researchers found that participants were, on average, most comfortable with an interaction of eye contact that lasted just over three seconds.

We shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when making eye contact with somebody, whether intentionally or not. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable at times, but we can fix that. Eye contact is like a dance that involves the two; there’s a natural cadence of looking at somebody and looking away, and there’s a general flow to how often we look into somebody’s eyes — the length usually depending on our level of comfort with the other. If it feels right, we can open ourselves up without needing to say anything at all — a prolonged glance allows us to enjoy the moment of pure human connection.

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I study Philosophy at Sac State, but I also write Philosophy at Medium.com

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