How much is too much eye contact

How long does pleasant eye contact last?

Look me in the eye - eye contact with the other person is an important aspect of our non-verbal communication. Interestingly, we seem to prefer a certain length of eye contact. If the other person looks at us for too long, we find it uncomfortable, as well as if someone looks away too quickly. But how long is optimal eye contact? Saprina E. made us aware of this topic - thank you very much. British researchers have investigated in more detail how long the eye contact perceived as pleasant on average lasts and which factors play a role in this.

One look can reveal more than a thousand words: When we get to know someone or talk to them, we look at them. We not only record facial expressions, facial features and appearance, but also unconsciously register subtle indications of mood, intentions and the personality of the other. How important this eye contact is is shown by the fact that even infants involuntarily examine eyes or eye-like shapes particularly intensely. Studies have also shown that our brain even has its own circuit that evaluates the direction of other people's gaze. However, direct eye contact with someone else is anything but simple: "The gaze behavior of two people is extremely dynamic," explain Nicola Binetti from University College London and his colleagues. Typically, there is a finely balanced alternation between looking directly and looking away again. How long direct eye contact lasts indicates, among other things, our interest and our attitude towards the other person. However, if the gaze lasts too long, it is quickly perceived as intrusive or threatening. If, on the other hand, it is too short, this also makes you suspicious and suggests rather low social skills.

Amazingly, no systematic research has been carried out to date on how long eye contact has to be maintained in order to be perceived as exactly right by most people. Binetti and her colleagues have now investigated this in an experiment. To do this, they asked almost 500 volunteers of different ages at the Science Museum in London to watch short video clips. These showed the face of a man or woman who looked directly at the test subjects for different lengths of time. During the videos, the test subjects wore eye trackers that recorded their line of sight as well as the width of their pupils. After each clip, the participants indicated at the push of a button whether they found the change of gaze pleasant or unpleasant. The researchers also carried out a psychological survey with everyone in order to obtain a rough classification of the personality traits.

A good three seconds is ideal

The evaluation showed that most people find eye contact of a little more than three seconds to be just right and pleasant. In the experiment, the average of the participants was 3.3 seconds, as the researchers report. "Surprisingly, we found that the preferred gaze duration does not depend on fundamental characteristics such as gender, personality traits or attractiveness," explains Binetti. The duration that was perceived as pleasant was independent of whether a woman and a man were looking at each other or two people of the same sex. How the test subjects performed in the psychological test with regard to their extroversion, openness, tolerance, conscientiousness or neuroticism did not play a role in the preferred gaze duration. “We did not find any significant deviations in terms of age either,” said Binetti and his colleagues. "Only with men did the gaze length increase with increasing age - if the person opposite was a female actress."

However, there was one factor that was closely linked to the duration of the gaze, as the scientists found out with their eye tracker: in the participants who preferred longer eye contact, the pupils dilated more and more quickly when looking at the person opposite. It has been known for a long time that our pupils involuntarily dilate with pleasure, but also with sexual arousal. Dilated pupils are also considered a sign of trust, while narrowed pupils, on the other hand, are a signal of fear or aggression. When exchanging gazes, we therefore unconsciously pay attention to whether the other person widens or constricts their pupils. If the former is the case, we are more likely to trust it, as studies show. But how is pupillary dilatation related to the preferred gaze duration? Obviously, it is not because of the attractiveness of the counterpart: In the experiment, the scientists could not determine any connection to the opinions of the test persons about the respective video portraits viewed.

Why people, who tend to look a little longer, dilate their pupils more, remains unclear for the time being. Binetti and his colleagues suspect that there might be something with subtle differences in the “social brain” and in the processing of social eye stimuli. But this is just a hypothesis. “Further studies will be necessary to find out how the preferred gaze duration and the activity in the brain areas for processing faces and gazes are related,” said the researchers.

Source: Nicola Binetti (University College London) et al., Royal Society Open Science, doi: 10.1098 / rsos.160086

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4th January 2019

© - Nadja Podbregar