Eye contact is generally interpreted as a sign of honesty and directness. However, many people, in particular those who are shy, find it uncomfortable. A new study has investigated potential and precise reasons why this is so. Our physical self-awareness becomes more intense when we are the object of someone else’s direct stare, the researchers found.

Eye Contact and Development

Simply placing a poster of staring eyes above bicycle racks in three locations at Newcastle University reduced theft by 62 percent during a two-year experiment. In a 2013 study, eye contact was found to be an accurate measure of developmental delays when researchers showed how babies who went on to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD) gradually decreased their eye contact with caretakers month by month between the ages of 2 and 6 months. Comparatively, their siblings who did not develop ASD showed the opposite trend and incrementally increased eye contact during that period. Many researchers believe these “deficits in eye contact” could serve as the basis for developing early intervention therapies in order to correct, delay, or even prevent the development of autism.

For the current investigation of eye contact, Dr. Matias Baltazar of Université de Vincennes and his co-researchers enlisted the help of 32 participants. The researchers began their experiment by wiring each of the participants to a skin conductance machine in order to record the sweatiness of their fingers and so measure, objectively, a participant’s emotional reaction. Once wired, the participants then observed a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen, and after each they rated the intensity of their emotional reaction. However, there was one twist: Either a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman's face appeared before each image. In the photos, the faces either looked directly at the participants — as if making eye contact — or averted their gaze.

What did the researchers discover? Overall, the participants' accuracy when judging their physiological reactions (compared to the objective assessment made by the skin conductance machine) was better for images following a photograph of a stranger making eye contact. "Our results support the view that human adults' bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another's gaze," wrote the researchers. Baltazar and his team suggest their work could lead to new therapies for people with conditions that seem to shut down sensitivity to particular stimuli, as happens for those suffering anorexia nervosa and major depression. Of course, knowledge of the effects of direct eye-contact might also help those who simply suffer from shyness.

Source: Baltazar M, Hazem N, Vilarem E, et al. Eye contact elicits bodily self-awareness in human adults. Cognition. 2014.