[Originally published by The Guardian]
Everyone from early mesmerists to contemporary self-help gurus have understood the power of looking someone deep in the eyes. Now, compelling new research is shedding light on the powerful positive effects of eye contact.
In an age of disconnectedness, locking gazes with another person has surprising benefits. The study finds it makes us much more likely to engage in selfless, altruistic behavior. We are also more likely to remember details of the interaction with the other person and to appraise that person more positively.
So why don’t we do it more often? Eye contact can be painful because it makes us profoundly vulnerable. After all, direct eye contact creates a moment when we are both very visible, but we also have minimal control over what the other sees. Being behind a screen is much safer. That’s why many of us largely avoid eye contact by gazing at our phones – especially in awkward or intimate moments.
We are used to hiding our feelings through careful curation of social media profiles and through various digital techniques of deferral and avoidance. When scrolling through our phones and feeds, we keep our minds busy and, perhaps superficially, keep in touch with others. But in those moments we are also largely devoid of self-awareness – and that, according to this latest research, is essential to making true contact with another person.
Of course, the internet is part of our lives now. We will never be able to go back to communicating exclusively face-to-face. Indeed, it is important to squeeze the most out of our personal interactions whenever possible – and that includes catching up with old friends online. But, thinking digital communication is enough to keep a relationship going is a fantasy. Interacting with friends online grants us greater control over the way they perceive us, and that can be reassuring. But if we retreat behind Snapchat videos, WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts, we lessen the possibility of an encounter that could teach us about one another and ourselves.
The power of eye contact is intuitively obvious to most of us – any research describing the positive effects of eye contact is cleanly in line with common sense. We know we are more likely to pay attention to someone who seems to be paying attention to us. It is also no surprise that exchanging glances with someone makes us feel better about that person.
The essence of the research, however, lies in revealing how self-reference – the kind of self-awareness that arises from direct eye contact – helps us when connecting with others. In order to connect more deeply, we must be seen in ways we cannot control, and an uncomfortable jolt of self-awareness in those first moments of eye contact may scare us away.
Now that we know even more about the essential importance of a simple, unbroken gaze, we have even more reason to seek it out. Especially when meeting up with someone we care about, deep eye contact matters. And, if that feels uncomfortable that’s OK. We should stick with it and keep seeing that person, and seeing that person see us. Once we get accustomed to it again, we might find ourselves looking all kinds of people in the eye. Who knows what surprises await us when we do?