Eye contact is mentioned as being important and a positive action for a huge range of human emotions and cognitive states. I am not sure where this 60–70% number came from, but methinks our FBI behaviour expert Mr. Dreeke pulled it right out of his ass. It turns out that the scientific literature is nowhere near as bullish on the importance and positiveness (positivity?)of eye contact, and in fact, many contradictory findings have been published. For example, a 2018 review article in Frontiers in Psychology found that “….. explicit affective evaluations of seeing another’s direct versus averted gaze have resulted in rather inconsistent findings; some studies report more positive subjective feelings to direct compared to averted gaze, whereas others report the opposite pattern. These contradictory findings may be related, for example, to differences between studies in terms of the capability of direct-gaze stimuli to elicit feelings of self-involvement.” Later in the article the author says “ ….one’s interpretation of the meaning of another’s gaze is, of course, contingent upon a number of antecedent, concurrent, and anticipated contextual factors. Moreover, the gazer’s verbal and non-verbal behavior, most importantly the verbal content and facial expressions, can have a great influence on the meaning attributed to his or her gaze. In a classic study by Ellsworth and Carlsmith (1968), participants were interviewed by an experimenter, who looked either directly at the participant’s eyes or to her left or right ear a fixed number of times. In addition, the verbal content of the interview was manipulated to be either positive or negative. The results showed that, in the positive context, the participants in the direct gaze group evaluated both the interview and the interviewer more positively as compared to those in the averted gaze group. The result was exactly the opposite in the negative context; the evaluation was more positive in the averted gaze than in the direct gaze group.”

Speaking for myself if someone tried to maintain eye contact with me for 70% of a given conversation I would be planning my escape routes as they spoke. There is no fundamental biological reason why eye contact should be anymore important than posture or tone or content or any of a million other factors relevant to how a given conversation is perceived. There is no doubt that eye contact is important in human interactions. However, it’s importance is so context dependent and variable that it is essentially impossible to draw any firm conclusions about when eye contact is a net positive and when a net negative. To suggest that we somehow know that 60–70% eye contact is the optimal number for projecting confidence is total bullshit. Given how wrong this so called “expert” is with his made up 60–70% statement I wonder how wrong he is about everything else? Frankly it calls into question the legitimacy of the entirety of the FBI’s behavior analysis program that it would employ someone with such a poor understanding of the science (and/or cavalier attitude towards the facts) as it’s leader.

I expanded on this some in a follow up article if you are interested

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Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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