On Eye Contact

by F.


I’m not a big eye contact person. In fact, when I look someone in the face, I can’t think. I like to look at people’s faces, and I like to think, but not simultaneously.

Of course, this has been a problem for me at times since there is a cultural myth that people who “look you in the eye” are honest, dependable—whatever. Complete horseshit, but there you go.

Maybe it’s to counter this myth, but for whatever reason I tend to assume the opposite: if someone looks me in the eye—directly and for a long time—I tend to think they are stupid. You can’t think and look people in the eye at the same time—that’s been my experience. Only cows look at you like that, and while I love my bovine friends, I don’t turn to them when I need help with a sudoku puzzle.

Now, we gaze avoiders can point to a new paper as a justification for our middle-distance-gazing ways. Don’t you just love that? What’s science for if not to provide a handy justification for your biases? Nature has a summary of the study. Here’s the money quote:

Further experiments by the same group showed that the difficulty of both looking at a face and thinking about maths is so extreme it can cause a physiological response.

In one study, around 30 adults were asked to perform a task requiring concentration, such as counting backwards from 100 in increments of 7, while staring at a human face. The combination of mental effort and emotional confusion caused the subjects to break out in a sweat.

The sweatiest subjects, Doherty-Sneddon adds, were men being tested by a female researcher.

We are so distracted by the barrage of emotional information transmitted in faces that it stops us from thinking clearly, Doherty-Sneddon says.

Like, duh. There’s a caveat, though: it looks like the researchers mostly studied arithmetical thinking:

Researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland took a group of 25 five-year-olds and trained them to look away when they were being asked a question. The effect was a significant increase in correct answers to mental arithmetic questions, says Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, who led the research.