Eye Contact: See What they Say

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Eye Contact: See What they Say

Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. (Dorothy Parker, New Items, 1960)

…the mind is the real instrument of sight and observation, the eyes act as a sort of vessel receiving and transmitting the visible portion of the consciousness. (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History)

The eyes are the ’messengers of the soul’. We ’keep our eye in’, ’have an eye to the main chance’, ’keep our eyes open/peeled/skinned’, ’see eye-to-eye with others’ but ’turn a blind eye to certain events’. Some people are ’more than meets the eye’. Some individuals are the ’apple of one’s eye’, and others a ’sight for sore eyes’. You may prefer ’not to bat an eye’ or to ’pull the wool over others’ eyes’. And you can be ’up to your eyes in trouble’. We can accurately label emotions just from eye slits, which is why talking to people wearing dark glasses can be so problematic.

Where, when and how we look at others are all part of the phenomenon of eye gaze. Gaze plays a crucial role in daily conversation. People tend to look up at the end of utterances: this gives them feedback and hands over the ’conversational baton’. People also look up more at the end of grammatical breaks, but look away when hesitating, talking non-fluently or thinking. There is often mutual eye contact during attempted interruptions, laughing and when answering short questions.

There is more mutual eye contact between friends than others, and a looker’s frank gaze is widely interpreted as positive regard. Lovers really do gaze more into each other’s eyes.

People who seek eye contact while speaking are regarded not only as exceptionally well-disposed by their targets, but also as more believable and earnest. Politicians ’sweep’ the room with their eye gaze. Salesmen know how to look at each member of their audience.

If the usual short, intermittent gazes during conversation are replaced by gazes of longer duration, the target interprets this as meaning that the communication is less important than the personal relation between two people.

The amount and type of eye gaze imparts a great deal of information. Pupil dilation, blink rates, direction of gaze and widening of the eyes all send very clear messages.

Pupils dilate for various reasons. In bright light they contract, in dim light expand. But they also dilate with strong emotions like sexual excitement or rage. The latter visibly manifest in cats or dogs that are about to fight. What is more, people respond to others who appear to be sexually attracted to them. Women used to put belladonna plant extract (which literally translates as ’beautiful woman’) in their eyes to cause pupil dilation (and, consequently, eyesight problems). This could be a painful and dangerous process but was considered worth it to attract men. Thus the man, unaware of why he was attracted to the woman, responded to the dilated pupils.

This is an example of the power of visible signals. Not one that may be the most relevant or applicable in the workplace, however.

Consider the factors that determine the amount of eye gaze:

1 Distance: In lifts (elevators) we turn to face the door because we stand too close and reducing eye gaze helps to reduce the discomfort of having our body zones invaded. Note how conversation before, during and after the ride changes. As soon as the distance between people drops below 6 feet their eye contact patterns decrease.

2 Topic of conversation: It is no accident that Catholic confessionals and psychiatric couches are so arranged as to attempt to reduce the amount of contact between priest or therapist and the individual in the confessional or the patient in the room. When people are talking about shameful and embarrassing things or looking inward, it is better that they sense but do not see others and that those listening do not (cannot) stare at them. People often find that they can have ’good conversations’ walking or doing a co-operative activity, such as washing up, because they are close to, but not looking at, their companions.

3 Conversation task: Doctors look more at patients when talking about emotional rather than physical symptoms or conditions. People look more at co-operators than competitors. Persuaders look more when trying to influence.

4 Attention: Hitch-hikers, charity-tin shakers and others all maximize eye contact to increase attention. People look at each other about 75 per cent of the time when talking but only 40 per cent of the time when listening. One looks to get, and keep, the attention of others.

5 Interpersonal relationships: People look at those they like more than those they do not like. Your pupils dilate more when you are looking at someone you like. Gaze also signals dominance: more powerful people are looked at more (partly because they tend to look more and speak less). Threat is also indicated by gaze. Direct gaze signals threat, while cutting off or averting your gaze is likely to signal appeasement.

6 Co-operation: The extent to which people are willing to co-operate rather than compete is often communicated by gaze patterns. The amount and type of gaze is important. The common meaning of a high level of gaze is that the gazer is interested and attentive. However, combined with certain expressions it could as easily indicate threat.

7 Personality: Extroverts look more often, and for longer, at their interlocutors than introverts. The confident, the bright and the socially dominant look more while it is the opposite for the socially anxious. Females look more at those they are talking to compared to males.

8 Physical appearance: People look less at the disabled, less attractive individuals and vice versa.

9 Mental illness: Many psychopathologies are associated with reduced and/or ’odd’ gaze patterns, especially autism and paranoia. Schizophrenics and depressed people tend to avert eye gaze.

10 Ethnicity: Contact cultures like those in the near East look more than non-contact cultures like those in Europe.

People also disguise eye contact by wearing dark glasses or sunshades. Blind people do so to indicate their blindness but also because they cannot always ’face’ a person. To avoid the embarrassment of not being able to ’look a person in the eye’ when appropriate, blind people wear tinted glasses. Security people also wear dark glasses so that possible suspects cannot see the direction in which they are looking. Traffic police wear reflecting, mirrored glasses to reduce the possibility of an argument. Irate or nervous drivers can be put off a confrontation if they not only cannot see the eyes of the policeman but are also forced to see the reflection of their own face.


Argyle, M. (1993). Bodily Communication. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Beattie, G. (2003). Visible Thought: The New Psychology of Body Language. Routledge: London.

Furnham, A., & Petrova, E. (2010). Body Language in Business. London: Palgrave.