When you have steady eye contact, it’s hard to think (even with friends)!
In 2015, we wrote a one of our combination (“tidbit”) posts that included a bit of information on how extended eye contact can cause hallucinations. As it turns out, it also makes it hard to think (which seems reasonable if you are having hallucinations). The researchers we are covering today say that maintaining eye contact can (essentially) deplete your mental bandwidth since it uses the same mental resources we call upon to perform complex tasks. Not to mention it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have unbroken eye contact—even with someone we know well.
Apparently, we only maintain eye contact (in Western countries) between 30% and 70% of a conversation (with highly invested people maintaining more eye contact). And, in other cultures, the researchers say, there are very different norms for eye contact during conversations that can vary quite dramatically depending upon who is talking to whom. For this experiment, the researchers asked participants to make “eye contact” with a person’s face on a computer screen. And even with such a “false” representation of eye contact, they found differences.
Specifically, they found that when given a cognitively demanding task, the participants were prone to break their eye contact with the face on the computer screen in order to consider their answer to the task.
The researchers think eye contact somehow takes up our mental energy and so (in order to think) we break eye contact to free up extra brain-power to focus on our answer to a thought-provoking question.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s an interesting study. Witnesses often ask how long they should steadily gaze at jurors during their testimony and we’ve blogged about that before too (based on another research study). Here’s what we found from that 2016 study:
On average, the close to 500 participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted slightly over three seconds. The majority preferred a duration of eye contact between two and five seconds and no one liked eye contact of less than a second or longer than nine seconds. We conclude that less than a second is too furtive, and longer than 9 seconds is intolerably intrusive. One problem with the study was that it used filmed clips rather than actual, live interactions but it is an approximate guide to “normal” eye contact versus “creepy” eye contact.
While you may want to take in the recommendations above for comfortable eye contact, this study also seems to give permission to break eye contact when thinking about your response to a question and maintaining your credibility. It’s a good strategy to teach in witness preparation for cross-examination. Just remember to re-initiate eye contact once you have retrieved or formulated your response!
Kajimura, S., & Nomura, M. (2016). When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation Cognition, 157, 352-357 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.10.002