Whether it be in romantic relationships, public speaking, or day to day interactions with friends, family, and strangers the importance and positive influence of eye contact is so often mentioned that we have become blind (nice pun, right?) to the actual facts of the matter. As a person with a reserved and shy nature I have always struggled with meeting another persons gaze for an extended period, and have continually kicked myself for my poor performance in this regard. For as long as I can remember I have blamed it, at least partially, for all manner of shitty outcomes in various relationships throughout my life. After all, according to everything I had read, people simply did not trust others who did not look them in the eyes when they spoke, or averted their gaze too soon.
It is an obvious tell for a liar that they avert their gaze when they speak, right?
FBI behavior “experts” tell us that it is critical to building trust and confidence in us with those whom we interact. In an interview, one former leader of the FBI behavior analysis unit suggested that 60–70% was the optimal amount of time we should be looking directly into another person’s eyes in any given conversation in order to maximize their trust in what we were saying.
I finally had enough and decided to actually question this seemingly never questioned piece of conventional wisdom and did a (brief) search of the scientific literature on the topic, and boy was I surprised by what I found. I need to preface this with a couple of important disclaimers. First, I am only about 75% of they way there in accepting Psychology as science or a science. Therefore, in my view all of the findings I mention are somewhat suspect. That said, it cannot be argued that experimental psychologists at least do use the scientific method; they hypothesize, conduct experiments, analyze data, report results and conclusions, etc. In that respect, unlike my favorite whipping boy data science, their scientific credentials can’t be called into question. However, they still suffer from several major deficiencies that ironically enough, also plague neuroscience (my third favorite whipping boy, Can you guess #2? If you said AI, congratulations you have read at least one of the close to 1500 articles I have written on any of those three topics), the biggest of these being the sample size problem and the reproducibility/inherent variability of experimental conditions problem. Don’t want to get sidetracked by going into details on this, but long story short those two problems (and a few others) are real, and are why I still hesitate to go all in on Pyschology as science. The second is that the literature review I did conduct was cursory and brief. Unfortunately I simply do not have the time to devote to an in depth review of the technical literature in Pyschology with everything else on my plate. Therefore I stuck mostly to review articles which are great because they do a lot of the legwork of summarizing the primary technical literature for you.
With that out of the way I can get right to the heart of the issue. 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 the 60–70% number that I mentioned above came from, but methinks our FBI behavior expert Mr. Dreeke pulled it right out of his ass. It turns out that my review of the scientific literature found that science 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. The literature is littered with articles reporting contradictory findings when the importance and/or role of eye contact in various aspects of human interactions has been studied. And it has been studied a shit ton. I mean a lot of work has been done on this topic with the problem being attacked from multiple angles. The upshot of all that hard work and effort has certainly seemed to be an increased awareness among the general public about it’s importance, but absent the context which informs us that it is not always, or even mostly always, a good thing. Thanks science, I feel better already. lol!