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Eye contact

Eye contact is an event when two people look at each other's eyes at the same time.[1] It is a form of nonverbal communication known as oculesics and has a large influence on social behavior. Frequency and interpretation of eye contact vary between cultures. In many species, eye contact is often perceived as a threat. All programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog.[2]

Additional recommended knowledge


Social meanings of eye contact

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.

In some parts of the world, particularly in East Asia, eye contact can provoke misunderstandings between people of different nationalities. Keeping direct eye contact with a work supervisor or elderly people leads them to assume you are being aggressive and rude — the opposite reaction of most Americans or Europeans.

Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.

The effectiveness of eye contact

Mother/child eye contact

Although some assert that children often respond to their mother's eyes from the moment of birth and that babies instinctively smile at black geometric spots — perceiving them as "eyes" by six weeks of age, a 1985 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard".[3] A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed.[4] A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze.[5] Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.[6][7]

Other explanations

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

Facilitating learning Recent studies suggests that eye contact has a positive impact on the retention and recall of information and may promote more efficient learning.[8][9][10]

Cultural differences

In Islam, Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's faces and eyes after the initial first eye contact, other than their legitimate partners or family members, in order to avoid potential unwanted desires (See References). Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited. This means that eye contact between any man and woman is allowed only for a second or two. This is a must in most Islamic schools, with some exceptions depending on the case, like when teaching, testifying, or looking at a girl for marriage. If allowed, it is only allowed under the general rule: "No-Desire", clean eye-contact. Otherwise, it is not allowed, and considered "adultery of the eyes".[citation needed]

In many cultures it is respectful to not 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".[11]

Eye aversion and mental processing

A study by University of Stirling psychologists found that children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions had higher rates of correct answers than children who maintained eye contact.[12] One researcher theorized that looking at human faces requires a lot of mental processing, which detracts from the cognitive task at hand.[12] Researchers also noted that a blank stare indicated a lack of understanding.[12]

Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon was quoted [1] as having said, "Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding. We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that's mentally demanding, it's unhelpful to look at faces."

Currently, gaze aversion, as has been noted by researchers, is often misinterpreted as an evasion of a question; resulting in a person being cut off before they've had a chance to respond to a statement or inquiry. This problem is particularly troubling in classroom settings, where a teacher will not give their students the opportunities they require to excel in open discussion.


In adults, eye contact shows personal involvement and creates intimate bonds. Mutual gaze narrows the physical gap between humans.

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device called the Interrotron which allowed his interview subjects to make direct eye contact with Morris while simultaneously looking directly into the filming camera. It allows the film's viewers to maintain eye contact with the people in Morris' films, giving what some describe as a more intimate acquaintance with them.

Interspecies Eye Contact

The eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals is also well documented. Young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks because they maintain eye contact, which the dog perceives as aggression, according to a report in the New Zealand Medical Journal. [13]

In many species, eye contact is often perceived as a threat. In the 1990’s, black bears returned to Catoctin Mountain Park, in Maryland, after a twenty-year absence. An important recommendation to visitors is to avoid direct eye contact if the 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.[14]

Comparisons with other mammals reveals that homo sapiens secrete tears as an emotional response. Other terrestrial mammals do not express their emotions by weeping. Additionally, the diameter of the pupil is highly dependent on the hormonal balance, and therefore on the emotional state as is the iris colour.


  1. ^ "Eye contact". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Retrieved May 14, 2006.
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  12. ^ a b c BBC News (citing research published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology)
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  • Al-Munajjid, Sheikh Muhammad Saleh (14/March/2004). "Twenty Tips for Lowering the Gaze". Retrieved March, 31, 2006.
  • A Group of Islamic Researchers (10/July/2004). "Lowering the Gaze: Summer Combat!". Retrieved March, 31, 2006.

See also

  • Australian Aboriginal avoidance customs
  • Evil eye
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Staring contest
  • The gaze (concept in postmodern and feminist philosophy)
  • The look - Description of interpersonal discomfort by Jean-Paul Sartre
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Eye_contact". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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