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Researchers showed this by asking participants to rate their own emotional reactions to various positive and negative images, some of which were preceded by a face staring straight at them, others by a face with gaze averted.Participants had more insight into their own emotional reactions (which were measured objectively through the galvanic skin response) after they’d made eye contact with a face.When it comes to deciding whether we trust another person, it turns out that it’s not only a question of how much eye contact they make, but also what we see in their eyes.Remarkably, it seems that we pay attention at a subconscious level to the behaviour of their pupils, and if they dilate – a sign of attraction and emotional arousal – we judge them to be more trustworthy, whereas if they constrict – a sign of fear or feeling threatened – then we judge them less trustworthy.Whether or not other people make eye contact with us changes the way that we think about them and their feelings.For example, we are more likely to remember faces with which we’ve experienced mutual gaze, and we consider displays of anger and joy to be more intense when shown by a person making eye contact.
Making eye contact impaired the participants’ performance on the hardest version of the verb generation task, presumably because it consumed spare brain power that might otherwise have been available to support performance on the verbal task.
Psychologists have made some surprising discoveries about the way that mutual gaze, or the lack of it, affects us mentally and physically and how we relate to each other.
Here we digest the fascinating psychology of eye contact, from tiny babies’ sensitivity to gaze to the hallucination-inducing effects of prolonged eye-staring.
Also, when we trust a partner with dilating pupils, our own pupils tend to mimic theirs and show similar dilation.
We think poorly of conversation partners who consistently avoid eye contact, but it is our feelings of belonging that are hurt when a stranger looks our way and deliberately avoids meeting our eyes – an experience captured by the German expression “wie Luft behandeln”, which means to be looked at as though air.
Psychologists showed us this by prompting some participants to feel ostracised in a game of online ball passing, and then asking them to judge whether a series of faces were looking right at them or not.