We’re taught from an early age that it is polite and assertive to look people in the eyes when we’re talking to them. Psychology research backs this up – people who make plenty of eye contact – as long as it’s not excessive – are usually perceived as more competent, trustworthy and intelligent. If you want to make a good impression, then, it’s probably a good idea to meet the gaze of the person you’re talking to. However, following this advice is not necessarily straight-forward for everyone. It’s well-documented that mutual gaze can be emotionally intense and distracting, even uncomfortably so for some.
If this is your experience, you may welcome a study published recently in the journal Perception that documents a phenomenon known as the “eye contact illusion” – put simply, we are not that good at telling whether an interlocutor is looking us in the eye or not. In fact, we tend to think they are, even when they’re not (a bias that is magnified after we’ve been rejected). Thanks to this illusion, you can give the impression of making eye contact simply by ensuring you are looking in the general direction of your conversant’s face.
To demonstrate the eye contact illusion, one member of the Edith Cowan University research team, Oliver Guidetti, held 4-minute “getting to know you” chats with 46 male and female university students. Both Guidetti, and the students he chatted to, wore eye tracking glasses. For half the students, Guidetti made plenty of eye contact (around 77 per cent of the time, resulting in mutual eye contact during 52 per cent of the chat) just as he usually would. For the other students, he chatted in the same casual way, but deliberately reduced his eye contact to around 25 per cent, focusing more on the mouth region of their faces instead (resulting in mutual eye contact for just 3 per cent of the chat).
The critical test was how much the students in the two groups believed Guidetti had tried to make eye contact and how much they enjoyed the chat. In fact both groups of students perceived the same amount of eye contact and enjoyed the chat the same amount. A follow-up experiment confirmed this wasn’t because the eye-tracking glasses made it hard to judge gaze direction.
The researchers, including lead author Shane Rogers, said their findings were consistent with past evidence suggesting that during normal conversation, the perception of eye contact is driven by the other person looking in the general direction of your face, not into your eyes specifically. The new findings may be reassuring to anyone who wants to be a good communicator but who finds eye contact uncomfortably intense. “Don’t get hung up on seeking out the eyes of the audience, just look more generally at their face, and let the eye contact illusion experienced by your partner do the work for you,” the researchers advised.