There are actually a few reasons that the human race in general struggles with the whole eye contact thing. For one, what feels natural to one person could skeeve the next one out, which makes it a pretty hard trick to master, even for the most socially savvy among us.
Like I mentioned, one issue is that everyone is different. The key to eye contact is the length – too short, people think you’re shifty, too long, it can get creepy. But what if what’s creepy to you is normal to someone else?
There are a few ways to predict someone else’s (or your own) comfort level with making eye contact. People who suffer from psychopathy, PTSD, or some form of emotional blindness – as well as those with high degrees of neuroticism, shyness, autism, or general social anxiety feel a certain way about it. For example, this study concluded that the more neurotic you are, the more discomfort you’ll likely feel when forced to look others in the eye due to issues with inhibition and feeling vulnerable.
For autistic people, sustained eye contact is too intimate. This recent study shows that the brains of people with autism show higher subcortical activity, the pathways that process facial expressions. Basically, their social oversensitivity and ability to quickly process facial cues combined tend to cause them to avoid eye contact.
A similar conundrum can be seen in bonobos and chimps, two of our closest relatives. As with humans, the level of comfort with sustained eye-contact varies from monkey to monkey. Monkeys raised in isolation, such as laboratories, are generally less comfortable with it than those who grew up in a normal social group.
According to Jari Hietanen, one of the study authors, “learning the role of eye contact and nonverbal gestures is helpful – especially when I need to impress people in such an occasion as a job interview.”
So not being able to live up to societal expectations when it comes to eye contact can have real world consequences – maybe even life and death, when it comes to asylum seekers. The UK organization Right to Remain, that works with people looking to emigrate, claims that some refugees have been refused entry because their inability to make adequate eye contact made it seem as if they were lying.
Science says that a direct gaze communicates both strong social communication and emotional information, as well as being one of the key ways we connect with others. Our current obsession with staring at screens isn’t helping, but since eye contact is so important, making an effort might be more important than ever.
h/t: NY Magazine
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