Eye contact is one of those Goldilocks things: Too much, and people find you intense; too little, and people think you’re shifty. Getting it just right, though, can be a challenge — especially when you consider that so many people find the whole thing awkward to begin with (even rock stars have trouble). And you don’t have much time to get it right, either: Research has shown that it takes just a few seconds for a gaze to go from comfortable to creepy.
Compounding the problem is the fact that we all have varying levels of comfort when it comes to locking eyes. One person’s friendly eye contact is another person’s excruciating moment, depending on your personality and cognitive traits. Psychopathy, PTSD, and alexithymia (sometimes known as “emotional blindness”) are often associated with greater discomfort with eye contact. So are neuroticism, shyness, social anxiety, and autism.
In one study, for example, the higher a participant’s level of neuroticism, the more quickly they felt compelled to break another person’s gaze. The same subjects also considered it more pleasant to face someone whose eyes were averted. The study authors, including Jari Hietanen, a psychologist at Finland’s University of Tampere, also analyzed two specific aspects of neuroticism: withdrawal and volatility. The data showed that withdrawal, which is related to feelings of inhibition and vulnerability, was the key feature that explained the desire to avoid eye contact.
For people with autism, meanwhile, the stress of eye contact stems from the intimacy that it fosters, explains Nouchine Hadjikhani, the director of Harvard’s Neurolimbic Research Lab. While most people will eventually become uncomfortable with sustained eye contact, the threshold for this discomfort is lower for people with autism, who “are hypersensitive to eye contact,” she says. We’re all wired to process faces (even sometimes seeing them in random patterns and objects), but in people with autism, it happens a little differently. In a study published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, Hadjikhani and her colleagues found that the brains of people with autism showed unusually high activity in the subcortical pathway, which processes facial expressions. “In everyday life, such oversensitivity may lead to attempts to decrease one’s arousal levels,” the researchers wrote, “and first-hand reports suggest that simply avoiding to attend to the eyes of others is one common strategy.”
It’s not only humans who show differences in eye-contact preferences. Fumihiro Kano, a comparative psychologist at Japan’s Kyoto University and Kumamoto Sanctuary for chimpanzees and bonobos, uses eye tracking to study what primates’ eye movements reveal about their social relations and mental processes. His research has found that bonobos — which, along with chimpanzees, are our closest primate cousins — have a greater desire for social affiliation than chimps, and are also closer to us in their eye-contact behavior. “Chimps have a strong tendency not to look at the eyes but look at the mouth — this is less humanlike,” Kano explains. “On the other hand, bonobos have a strong tendency to look at the eyes but not the mouth — this is more humanlike.”
As with us, though, both species also show variation from ape to ape. For example, in Kano’s research, chimps that had experienced social deprivation (having been raised in a research lab) were less attentive to both eyes and mouths than other chimps. And among humans, Kano explains, cultural differences can also influence eye-contact preferences: “People from Western cultures tend to look at the eyes and mouth more directly than people from Eastern cultures, who tend to look at the center of the face, around the nose,” he says.
Why does all this matter? For one thing, there can be real-world consequences to nonconforming levels of eye contact. The U.K. organization Right to Remain, which supports people seeking asylum, has claimed that applications for refugee status have been refused because the applicants didn’t make eye contact during interviews, and thus were assumed to be lying. More generally, direct gaze is an incredibly powerful source of social and emotional information. Eye contact is associated with strong communication, memory for faces, and social connection. Some of this information can be gleaned through body language or tone of voice, but not all.
Thus, Hadjikhani says, “It’s important that in the end, people are able to look in the eyes and read all these subtle signs.” While people with autism and others who have difficulty with eye contact shouldn’t be overly pressured into developing more typical gaze behavior, she believes that gentle adjustments to ease people into eye contact can make a big difference.
This can be difficult, given that eye-contact behavior typically becomes ingrained at a fairly young age. While there isn’t any published research that addresses this specific issue, Hietanen believes that self-consciousness about eye contact starts around the age of 2 to 3.
And thinking too much about eye contact can also have a counterproductive effect, making people more self-conscious about how they’re doing. Kano, who studies eye contact for a living, is a case in point: “I’m definitely more conscious about it!” he says. “Sometimes I look at my friends’ eyes too awkwardly because of such self-consciousness.”
“But in general,” he adds, “learning the role of eye contact and nonverbal gestures is helpful — especially when I need to impress people in such an occasion as a job interview.”
Less helpful, as Hietanen points out, is our modern-day tech-heavy lifestyle. “Nowadays, our gaze is quite often directed to computer screens or to our mobile screens, even when being together with other people,” he says. “It’s pretty self-evident that this is not beneficial for smooth social interaction.” Eye contact has always been fraught with awkwardness; now, though, that may be truer than ever.