Eye-to-eye contact is rare but shapes our social behavior

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
When speaking to one another, much of the communication occurs nonverbally - through body posture, hand gestures, and the eyes. Our eye gaze during conversations therefore reveals a wealth of information about our attention, intention, or psychological states. But, there remains little scientific knowledge about the information that human eyes convey in interactions - is looking at others’ faces enough, or does our communication require eye-to-eye "We discovered that participants spent only about 12% of conversation time in interactive looking, meaning that they gazed at each other’s faces simultaneously for just 12% of the interaction duration," explains Florence Mayrand, PhD candidate in the Laboratory for Attention and Social Cognition (directed by Prof. Jelena Ristic from McGill’s Department of Psychology), and lead author of the study. "Even more surprisingly, within those interactions, participants engaged in mutual eye-to-eye contact only 3.5% of the time."

More than meets the eye

During the interactions, the participants spent more time looking away than looking at their partner’s faces. When they did look at each other’s faces, they looked equally often at the mouth and eye region and spent little time in mutual eye-to-eye contact. However, the time spent looking directly into each other’s eyes predicted subsequent gaze-following. In other words, pairs who looked directly into each other’s eyes were more likely to follow their partner’s gaze afterwards.

"This study is one of the first to show the prevalence of eye-to-eye looking during real-life interactions. We found that, surprisingly, direct eye-to-eye contact was quite rare during interactions, but that it is significant for social dynamics. The time we engage in eye-to-eye contact, even if for a few seconds, appears to be an important predictive factor for subsequent social behavior" concludes Mayrand.

This work opens several promising paths for future investigations, ranging from exploring the content of social messages conveyed by eye gaze to investigating the variability of eye-to-eye engagement with changes in interactive context and understanding if the quantity and content of speech influences gaze patterns during interactions.

With files from Tobii

About the study

" A dual mobile eye tracking study on natural eye contact during live interactions " by Florence Mayrand, Francesca Capozzi and Jelena Ristic, was published in Scientific Reports.