Surely, you’ve heard many times before that eye contact is important. Eyes are the window to the soul, you can tell someone’s goodness just by looking them in the eye, he wouldn’t look at me in the eye and lie, and so on. If you look up advice on dating, job interviews, sales, or just making friends, sustained eye contact will no doubt make the list as a key to what you want. We believe eyes convey emotion and empathy and that we can literally feel it from others when we lock eyes.
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Understand what makes people tick, and strategically give it to them. There are seminal studies from (in)famous researchers such as Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov, Stanley Schachter, and Daniel Goleman, but also the most up-to-date discoveries from 2019 – all insightful, analytical, sometimes surprising, but most importantly effective and actionable. Pair that with the insight and human intelligence factor of bestselling author and social skills coach Patrick King, and you have a guide that can be read equally for education as for helpful, real advice.
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As a society, we place a lot of value on the implications of eye contact and what it means for trust in particular. If you meet someone who refuses to meet your eye contact, or conversely meets it for too long, you feel discomfort and leave with a negative impression of that person. People who don’t make eye contact are perceived as being untrustworthy or deceitful. This ages-old assumption has been disproven repeatedly, most recently in 2012 in “The Eyes Don’t Have It: Lie Detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming” by Wiseman and Watt, which found no correlation between eye contact and deceit but instead a considerable correlation between hand gestures and deceit.
So while the lack of eye contact doesn’t actually say anything about others, it may as well be true if people make those assumptions about you.
On the other hand, there is a truly significant number of positive assumptions that we make about people who make eye contact and that can surely improve people’s perception of you. Generally, people who make eye contact are seen as more dominant and powerful; warmer and more personable; more attractive and likable; more qualified, skilled, competent, and valuable; more trustworthy, honest, and sincere; and more confident and emotionally stable. In other words, just about all the things that are associated with social success.
Why do we care so much about eye contact or the lack thereof? Is it just because we have been told from childhood to look at people in the eye and give them a firm handshake? Of course, it turns out that what may have started as old-fashioned advice from an older generation truly has many scientific confirmations.
In 1978 in “Effects of Eye Contact and Social Status on the Perception of a Job Applicant in an Employment Interviewing Situation,” Tessler and Sushelsky found that we tend to make positive or negative assumptions based on how much someone meets our eye gaze—the more, the better.
In 2001 in “Accurate Intelligence Assessments in Social Interactions: Mediators and Gender Effects,” Murphy and Hall found that we generally consider those who return eye contact to be more intelligent, conscientious, and sincere.
In 2016 in “Direct Speaker Gaze Promotes Trust in Truth-Ambiguous Statements,” Kreysa and Kressler found that more eye contact promotes feelings of trust and genuineness.
Oddly enough, you probably knew the outcomes of these studies already. Whether they represent the truth or are just assumptions, we have to make sure that we don’t fall on the wrong side of those studies.
As we are increasingly more caught up in a battle for our attention between our phones and our real-life conversation partners, the ability to make eye contact has become an especially powerful tool. When you can utilize eye contact smartly to show somebody that they have your undivided attention, you can effectively win them over and enhance their perception of you.
There was never a need to convince you about the role of eye contact in trust, but there is one rather large caveat with eye contact—how should we use it? We can’t simply stare into someone’s eyes and try to read their souls. That is extremely uncomfortable and unsettling. In fact, eye contact has been shown to consume a significant amount of our brainpower and focus when we utilize it.
A 2016 Japanese study by Kajimura and Nomura titled “When We Cannot Speak: Eye Contact Disrupts Resources Available to Cognitive Control Processes During Verb Generation” found that eye contact consumes a significant portion of our general cognitive resources, and it is difficult to perform other actions, even talking, when making focused eye contact. If this is true for us, it is true for the person you are speaking to. Sustained eye contact is uncomfortable and causes a special kind of internal tension. This is probably why we feel the need to break eye contact when we want to remember something or explain something more complex. Give people a break.
In fact, in 2006, in a paper titled “Helping Children Think: Gaze Aversion and Teaching” by Phelps and Doherty-Sneddon, researchers found that kids told to look away while thinking and solving problems showed a 20% increase in performance.
So how can we improve our eye contact to create feelings of trust? It has to start from the scientific evidence that people feel uncomfortable with a lot of sustained eye contact, but they also feel that you are a shady character if you don’t provide enough. Where is the thin line where you are making your best impression and being most likable?
In 2016, Binetti and Hanson investigated the question of the average preferred length of eye contact. In “Pupil Dilation as an Index of Preferred Mutual Gaze Duration,” they found that the average preference was only three seconds (before breaking contact and reengaging later). Most people preferred something between two to five seconds, and no one preferred anything under one second or over nine seconds. The thin line of eye contact appears to be that as long as you hold it for three seconds at a time, more often than not, then you will be seen as trustworthy. More eye contact is not better. Not even close to it.
In 1975 in “Eye-Contact, Distance, and Affiliation,” Argyle and Dean observed that people tend to maintain eye contact roughly 40–60% of the time when conversing, and we should seek to maintain eye contact for 80% of the time. This leads us to my personal guidelines: make eye contact 50% when talking and 75% when listening.
When you speak, you want others to be comfortable having their attention on you, but you also want to make sure that you don’t appear to be hiding something or feeling uncomfortable yourself. And as you listen, you want whoever is speaking to see that you are engaged, but you don’t want to look at them so much that they might feel creeped out. As long as you are in the general ballpark of 50% and 75% for speaking and listening, respectively, you’ll be making the most out of the surprisingly powerful tool of eye contact.