The power of eye contact

Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying eye contact for decades and their research reveals much about its power—for example that we make assumptions about other people based on how much they meet our eyes or look away when we are talking to them. Dr. Christian Jarrett, editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, curated some of the most intriguing recent findings (

  • Eye contact kicks off a raft of brain processes, and even looking at a portrait painting that appears to be making eye contact has been shown to trigger a swathe of brain activity related to social cognition – in regions involved in thinking about ourselves and others (
  • We generally perceive people who make more eye contact to be more intelligent, more conscientious and, in Western cultures, more sincere. We also become more inclined to believe what they say (
  • A recent study found that mutual gaze leads to a kind of partial melding of the self and other: we rate strangers with whom we’ve made eye contact as more similar to us (

Of course, too much eye contact can make people uncomfortable – and individuals who stare without letting go can be unsettling. In one study, psychologists tried to establish the preferred length of eye contact. They concluded that, on average, it is three seconds long—and no one preferred gazes that lasted longer than nine seconds (

Eye contact is multi-dimensional. When we gaze into another’s eyes, we are subliminally decoding messages from their eye muscles (which reveal emotion), the dilation of their pupils, and even the limbal rings (the circles that surround the irises). “When you look another person in the eye,” says Dr. Jarred, “just think: it is perhaps the closest you will come to ‘touching brains’ – or touching souls if you like to be more poetic about these things.”

From the Glasers