Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Importance of Eye Contact Debunked

Remember that magical moment when you first locked eyes with your partner and felt an instant connection? Chances are they were looking at your mouth. Or your ear.

Using eye-tracking technology, Edith Cowan University researchers have demonstrated that people don’t need to mindfully look at the eyes during face-to-face conversation to be perceived as making eye contact. Simply gazing somewhere around the face or head will suffice.

Lead author Dr Shane Rogers said this finding will be welcome news for people who experience social anxiety when gazing specifically at another person’s eyes, or when being looked at. “Maintaining strong eye contact is widely accepted to be an important communication skill in western cultures,” Rogers said. “People believe if you aren’t willing to engage in soul-to-soul mutual eye contact then you are at best lacking in confidence; at worst, untrustworthy. However, the reverence devoted to eye contact is not supported by scientific evidence.”

The study, which has been published in Perception (https://goo.gl/dKmgtJ), involved a researcher engaging in 4-minute conversations with 46 participants where both parties wore eye-tracking glasses. “For approximately half the conversations, the researcher looked at the eyes most of the time, and for the other half gazed predominantly at the mouth,” Rogers explained.

After the conversations, the participants rated how much they enjoyed the conversations. “The mouth group perceived the same amount of eye contact and enjoyed the conversations just as much as the eye group,” Rogers said.

The results suggest that when specifically focused on trying to determine the gaze of one’s partner, people demonstrate limited capacity to do it accurately. “People are not very sensitive to the specific gaze focus of their partner to their face; instead they perceive direct gaze towards their face as eye contact,” Rogers said.