Maintaining eye contact can feel incredibly uncomfortable for those with social anxiety, or for otherwise generally awkward individuals. A new study published in Cognition hints at a potential reason why: Looking someone in the eye seems to make us more physically aware of our own selves.
Psychologist Christian Jarrett has a nice summary of the methodology at the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest:
The researchers presented 32 participants with a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they asked them to rate the intensity of their emotional reaction. … These faces were either looking right at the participants, as if making eye contact, or they had their gaze averted. The participants’ were also wired up to a skin conductance machine that measured the sweatiness of their fingers.
The study volunteers were asked to rate their own physiological reactions after viewing the images, and they were better at this after viewing a picture of a face that seemed to be looking them in the eye. As the researchers put it, “adults’ bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another’s gaze.” We manage to make eye contact, in other words, mostly about ourselves.