Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time

By Christian Jarrett

When someone’s talking to you, have you noticed how they seem to keep breaking off eye contact, as if finding it hard to both talk and look you in the eye at the same time? Similarly, when you’re explaining something to someone or telling them a story, do you find yourself looking away from their eyes, so that you can concentrate on what you’re saying? A pair of Japanese researchers say that this happens because eye contact has a “unique effect” on our “cognitive control processes”. Essentially, mutual gaze is so mentally stimulating that it can be tricky to think straight and maintain eye contact at the same time.

Past research has shown that eye contact interferes with other mental tasks such as those involving visual imagination. Arguably this isn’t so surprising because both eye contact and visual imagination are obviously tapping the same mental domain. In their new paper in Cognition, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura tested whether eye contact also interferes with our ability to generate verbs in a word task, and whether this happens in all cases, or only when the verb generation task is made extra difficult.

Twenty-six participants were asked to look directly at a stranger’s face shown on-screen, while simultaneously performing an auditory verb generation task. Six men’s and women’s faces featured in the study, and were shown either looking straight at the participant or with their gaze averted. The faces were video animated so they appeared naturally, blinking and breathing. Each trial, the participant looked at the face, heard a noun, then their task was to respond out loud with a verb that could be used with the noun in a sentence.

The researchers used a range of nouns that are easier or harder to respond to, based on how strongly associated to the noun any related verbs are (i.e. retrieval demands high or low); and whether one possible response is much more dominant than any others versus there being many equally plausible alternatives (i.e. selection demands high or low).

To take one example, the noun “milk” is easy on both measures, because it’s strongly associated with “drink” and much more so than any other verb.

The key result is that participants were much slower at the verb generation task when making eye contact with the face on-screen, as opposed to when the face’s gaze was averted, but only in the most difficult version of the verb generation task, when retrieval and selection demands were high.

Kajimura and Nomura said this shows that eye contact doesn’t directly interfere with mental processes specifically related to verb generation – if it did, then performance times ought to have been longer for eye contact across easy and difficult versions of the verb task. Instead, they said the results are consistent with the idea that eye contact drains our more general cognitive resources – the kind that we need to draw on when some other task, such as speaking, becomes too difficult to be handled by domain-specific resources. That’s why the more complicated the story you’re telling (or excuse you’re making), the more likely you are to need to break off eye contact.

Looking away when we’re talking is something most of us do instinctively as adults, but this isn’t necessarily the case for children. Past research has shown that young children can benefit from being taught to avert their gaze when they’re thinking.

When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation

Image via Craig Sunter/Flickr

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

18 thoughts on “Why it’s hard to talk and make eye contact at the same time”

  1. I’m amazed at your article on eye contact. The world of NLP has researched this thoroughly over more than 30 years and come up with some very straight forward models.

    1. This is a REAL question that comes from me being unsure: I was trained in NLP by Bandler in the 80’s. Since then….maybe 10 years after, I heard that their eye movement modeling did NOT hold up to research. Are you aware of other research that supports their eye movement model – I am talking re the upper left & right, and down left & right being related to creating and/or actual memories!?

  2. Lets explain this to only those school teachers who get finicky when the student looks somewhere else and not in their eyes. I have seen kids who don’t look in the eyes but are expert listeners. How to convince those insecure teachers that, even those kids who occasionally sneak a peek at the trees, sky and birds outside thru the window are very much present very much listening to teacher’s repetitions, even if they look somewhere else for a few moments, even if they may not seem attentive to them, they can very well hear with their ears open and are equally eager to absorb new information.

    1. I had this problem when I was in 4th Grade. A teacher downgraded me on participation because I didn’t always make eye contact in class. But my grades were high, so my mom pointed out at the parent-teacher conferences that if I wasn’t listening and getting good grades, I must be a genius XD

  3. The thing that stands out for me here is that we are looking at eye contact in a Japanese context. Having been to Japan on several occasions I now that, culturally, eye contact can make a Japanese person feel deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be a good idea to replicate this method in another cultural context. The Japanese results are still very interesting however.

  4. Very Interesting article. Few people use properly eye contact while talking. We never think about it until something like this article brings it for thought and discussion!

  5. Interesting but not easy to interpret. In conversation face to face there is a level of interpersonal meaning to do with the rhythm of eye contact. The experimental setup here introduces ‘weird contact’, which has no obvious meaning and no interpersonal fuctnion, and finds that it disturbs a similarly isolated process (verb finding).

  6. Pingback: Post 16 |

Comments are closed.