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Eye Contact Is Important

a black-and-white portrait of a man looking at the camera

Have you ever met someone who immediately makes you deeply uncomfortable? Some people might say, unscientifically, that it's just bad vibes. But there might be a scientific explanation for that feeling.

It might be the way he makes eye contact. Scientists are just starting to understand the subtle ways that social eye contact affects our sense of comfort with another person.

Looking Direct

A team of psychologists from England studied the duration of normal social eye contact. The subjects looked at videos of actors that seemed to be looking directly into their eyes for various lengths of time, and reported whether they felt uncomfortable.

The researchers also measured an unconscious physiological indicator of comfort: eye pupil diameter which gets bigger when subjects are comfortable. They found that, on average, eye contact of three point three seconds felt most comfortable and shorter or longer durations can feel uncomfortable.

Subjects And Situations

But, the real world is more complicated than a scientist's lab. Researchers found lots of variation between subjects and situations. (And if you're interested in learning more about how researchers are considering how different contexts affect study results, we discussed this in a recent episode.) But their work is a first step towards understanding social eye contact.

By studying normal social eye contact, researchers will be in a better position to study the eye contact differences that clinicians have noticed in patients with an autism spectrum disorder. It's a social issue that can add a level of discomfort to social interactions.

Many other factors, including anxiety levels, personality, and other things can also influence how people approach and understand eye contact.

Thank you to Deborah Riby, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology at Durham University, UK for reviewing this episode's script.

Read More:

N. Binetti et al. 2016, Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration, Royal Society Open Science, 3: 160086.

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