Eye contact

Eye contact
Two figures locking eyes in Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller.

Eye contact is a meeting of the eyes between two individuals.[1]

In human beings, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. Coined in the early to mid-1960s, the term has come in the West to often define the act as a meaningful and important sign of confidence and social communication.[2] The customs and significance of eye contact vary widely between cultures, with religious and social differences often altering its meaning greatly.

The study of eye contact is sometimes known as oculesics.[3]


Social meanings of eye contact

Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information. People, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other's eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.

Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.

Mutual eye contact that signals attraction initially begins as a brief glance and progresses into a repeated volleying of eye contact, according to Beverly Palmer, Ph.D. and professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.[4]

In the process of civil inattention strangers in close proximity, such as a crowd, avoid eye contact in order to help maintain their privacy.

The effectiveness of eye contact

Parent/child eye contact

A 1985 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard".[5] A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed.[6] A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze.[7] Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.[8][9]

Communicating attention

A person's direction of gaze may indicate to others where his or her attention lies.

Facilitating learning

Recent studies suggest that eye contact has a positive impact on the retention and recall of information and may promote more efficient learning.[10][11][12]

Cultural differences

Two men staring each other in the eye during a political argument.

In the Islamic faith, Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's faces and eyes after the initial first eye contact, other than their legitimate partners or family members, in order to avoid potential unwanted desires.[13][14] Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited. This means that eye contact between any man and woman is allowed only for a second or two.[15]

Japanese children are taught in school to direct their gaze at the region of their teacher's Adam's apple or tie knot. As adults, Japanese lower their eyes when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect.[16]

In many cultures, such as East Asia and Nigeria,[17] it is respectful not to look the dominant person in the eye, but in Western culture this can be interpreted as being "shifty-eyed", and the person judged badly because "he wouldn't look me in the eye"; references such as "shifty-eyed" can refer to suspicions regarding an individual's unrevealed intentions or thoughts.[18] Nevertheless, the seeking of constant unbroken eye contact by the other participant in a conversation can often be considered overbearing or distracting by many even in western cultures, possibly on an instinctive or subconscious level.

Eye aversion and mental processing

A study by Phelps, Doherty-Sneddon, and Warnock[19] concluded that children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions are more likely to answer correctly than children who maintain eye contact. According to Doherty-Sneddon:[20]

"Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding. We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that's mentally demanding, it's unhelpful to look at faces."

Contrariwise, Doherty-Sneddon suggests that a blank stare indicates a lack of understanding.[20]

Difficulty with eye contact

Some people find eye contact more difficult than others. For example, those with autistic disorders or social anxiety may find eye contact to be particularly unsettling.[21]

Between species

Patterns of eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals are also well documented.

Animals of many species, including dogs, often perceive eye contact as a threat. Many programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog.[22] According to a report in The New Zealand Medical Journal,[23] maintaining eye contact is one reason young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks.

In the 1990s, black bears returned to Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park after a twenty-year absence. Park officials recommend that visitors avoid direct eye contact if a bear stands on its hind legs. Chimpanzees use eye contact to signal aggression in hostile encounters, and staring at them in a zoo can induce agitated behavior.[22]

See also


  1. ^ "Eye contact". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Retrieved May 14, 2006.
  2. ^ http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eye%20contact
  3. ^ Krueger (2008), p. 6
  4. ^ Kearl, Mary (November 2008). "Psychology of Attraction". AOL Health. http://www.aolhealth.com/healthy-living/relationships/what-causes-attraction. Retrieved August 2009. 
  5. ^ Samuels CA (August 1985). "Attention to eye contact opportunity and facial motion by three-month-old infants". J Exp Child Psychol 40 (1): 105–14. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(85)90067-0. PMID 4031786. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/0022-0965(85)90067-0. 
  6. ^ Hains SM, Muir DW (October 1996). "Infant sensitivity to adult eye direction". Child Dev 67 (5): 1940–51. doi:10.2307/1131602. JSTOR 1131602. PMID 9022223. 
  7. ^ Farroni T, Johnson MH, Csibra G (October 2004). "Mechanisms of eye gaze perception during infancy". J Cogn Neurosci 16 (8): 1320–6. doi:10.1162/0898929042304787. PMID 15509381. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/0898929042304787?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3dncbi.nlm.nih.gov. 
  8. ^ Reid VM, Striano T (March 2005). "Adult gaze influences infant attention and object processing: implications for cognitive neuroscience". Eur. J. Neurosci. 21 (6): 1763–6. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2005.03986.x. PMID 15845105. http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/resolve/openurl?genre=article&sid=nlm:pubmed&issn=0953-816X&date=2005&volume=21&issue=6&spage=1763. 
  9. ^ Brooks R, Meltzoff AN (November 2002). "The importance of eyes: how infants interpret adult looking behavior". Dev Psychol 38 (6): 958–66. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.38.6.958. PMC 1351351. PMID 12428707. http://content.apa.org/journals/dev/38/6/958. 
  10. ^ Fullwood C, Doherty-Sneddon G (March 2006). "Effect of gazing at the camera during a video link on recall". Appl Ergon 37 (2): 167–75. doi:10.1016/j.apergo.2005.05.003. PMID 16081035. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0003-6870(05)00089-X. 
  11. ^ Mayer K (October 2005). "Fundamentals of surgical research course: research presentations". J. Surg. Res. 128 (2): 174–7. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2005.07.001. PMID 16243041. http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022-4804(05)00370-7. 
  12. ^ Estrada CA, Patel SR, Talente G, Kraemer S (June 2005). "The 10-minute oral presentation: what should I focus on?". Am. J. Med. Sci. 329 (6): 306–9. doi:10.1097/00000441-200506000-00010. PMID 15958872. http://meta.wkhealth.com/pt/pt-core/template-journal/lwwgateway/media/landingpage.htm?issn=0002-9629&volume=329&issue=6&spage=306. 
  13. ^ Al-Munajjid, Sheikh Muhammad Saleh (14/March/2004). "Twenty Tips for Lowering the Gaze". Retrieved March 31, 2006.
  14. ^ A Group of Islamic Researchers (10/July/2004). "Lowering the Gaze: Summer Combat!". Retrieved March 31, 2006.
  15. ^ The concept of "adultery of the eyes" comes from a well known hadith: "Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: 'I have not seen a thing resembling lamam (minor sins) than what Abu Huraira narrated from the Prophet who said 'Allah has written for Adam's son his share of adultery which he commits inevitably. The adultery of the eyes is the sight (to gaze at a forbidden thing), the adultery of the tongue is the talk, and the inner self wishes and desires and the private parts testify all this or deny it.' " (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 74, Number 260 visited 24/1/2009). As to what is considered "to gaze at a forbidden thing", reference is made to the Quran "Tell the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make far greater purity for them; And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And tell the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." (Quran 24:30-31)
  16. ^ Robert T. Moran; Philip R. Harris; Sarah Virgilia Moran (2007). Managing cultural differences: global leadership strategies for the 21st century. Butterworth-Heinemann. pp. 64–. ISBN 9780750682473. http://books.google.com/books?id=VtHjGqs-8WUC&pg=PA64. Retrieved 17 December 2010. 
  17. ^ Galanti, Geri-Ann (2004). Caring for patients from different cultures. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 34. ISBN 9780812218572. http://books.google.com/books?id=nVgeOxUL3cYC&pg=PA34. 
  18. ^ Kathane, Raj (June 2004). "BMJ Careers: Adapting to British culture". BMJ 328 (7454): 273. http://careers.bmj.com/careers/advice/view-article.html?id=268. 
  19. ^ Phelps, F. G.; Doherty-Sneddon, G.; Warnock, H. (2006). "Helping children think: Gaze aversion and teaching". British Journal of Developmental Psychology 24 (3): 577. doi:10.1348/026151005X49872.  edit
  20. ^ a b http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4602178.stm BBC News
  21. ^ http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/index.php?pageId=472
  22. ^ a b Primal Health
  23. ^ Booker, Jarrod (11 August 2007). "'Eye contact' likely cause for dog attacks". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10457124. Retrieved 30 September 2011. 
  • Krueger, Juliane (2008). Nonverbal Communication. ISBN 9783638930154. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • eye contact — UK US noun [U] ► a situation in which two people look directly into each other s eyes. Eye contact is considered to be an important part of effective communication: »Throughout the interview, she was trying to remain polite while avoiding direct… …   Financial and business terms

  • eye contact — eye ,contact noun uncount a situation in which two people look at each other s eyes: make/establish eye contact: He was very shy and found it difficult to make eye contact …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • eye contact — n visual contact with another person s eyes …   Medical dictionary

  • eye contact — n. direct visual contact with the eyes of another person …   English World dictionary

  • eye contact — noun 1. a meeting of the eyes between two people that expresses meaningful nonverbal communication it was a mere glance, but the eye contact was enough to tell her that he was desperate to leave • Hypernyms: ↑visual communication 2. contact that… …   Useful english dictionary

  • eye contact — UK / US noun [uncountable] a situation in which two people look at each other s eyes make/establish eye contact: He was very shy and found it difficult to make eye contact …   English dictionary

  • eye contact — noun The condition or action of looking at another human or animal in the eye. If you make the animal angry, walk slowly backwards and avoid making eye contact …   Wiktionary

  • eye contact — 1. the act of looking directly into another s eyes: We never made eye contact at any time during the interview. 2. Psychol. a meeting of the eyes of two persons, regarded as a meaningful nonverbal form of communication. [1960 65] * * * …   Universalium

  • eye contact — eye′ con tact n. cvb direct visual interaction between two people …   From formal English to slang

  • eye contact — noun Date: 1955 visual contact with another person s eyes …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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