Here’s looking at you: The uncomfortable truth about staring

October 30, 2018

If you drop something in public, or raise your voice, or rush to the aid of a person in need, you are not surprised when all eyes in the vicinity turn in your direction. But, what if you are sitting on the bus and can’t help but feel that the passenger sitting across the aisle is watching—or even judging—you? It’s just a sensation you cannot explain, but you are convinced that you have become the target of another person’s visual fixation.

Conversely, perhaps you are the one doing the staring—and you are not sure what attracted your attention, but you cannot drag your eyes away.

Study results published on October 27 by Psychology Today—and posited by the University of London’s Hannah Scott and colleagues—have determined that people stare because “faces, and in particular, the eyes, provide lots of useful non-verbal information about a person’s mental state.”

The eyes betray “socially relevant information,” they go on to explain, because when you see what people are looking at, you have some idea about what they might be thinking.

Indeed, the authors suggest that people read your body language in order to extract as much information as possible, and they will direct their gaze toward the part of your body providing that information. In fact, it’s not just the eyes that people stare. The British researchers observe that people also stare at other people’s lips to gain additional contextual cues about what they mean while they’re talking. If you feel someone’s eyes focused on your mouth while you’re speaking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want a kiss—but it could be because they actually can’t hear you all that well.

Your hands also might be the focus of attention, if you are using gestures to emphasize what you are saying—or perhaps they’re trying to figure out how to do what you’re doing. That person watching you on the bus might be observing you playing a video game on your mobile device or crocheting a scarf. Maybe there’s a skill you have that this person wants to learn. If that person is watching your feet, it might be to help figure out when to get up to make it off the bus for an upcoming stop.

The 72 undergraduates who participated in the University of London study watched three videos (each, about two minutes long) that varied according to the activities of the male actors. The researchers recorded the eye movements of the students while they watched the actor either looking directly at the viewer while giving a monologue (without many hand gestures), talking while making a cup of tea, or performing a magic routine in which both speech and hand motions actively misdirected attention from the trick. The researchers also varied the presence or absence of sound during the actor’s performance.

During the monologue condition, whether or not there was audio present, participants spent most of the time looking at the actor’s face but not his hands. The opposite pattern appeared for the tea-making task, as was also true for the magic routine.

Additionally, looking just at the period when the actor looked directly into screen (about 48% of the video), participants looked more at the eyes than the mouth, if there was audio playing at the same time. With no audio, in the monologue condition, viewers seemed to try to decipher what the actor was saying by watching his mouth move. There were no systematic eye-mouth differences in the viewers when the actors performed either the manual or the music task.  However, if the actor looked directly into the screen while performing the manual task, then viewers were drawn to fixating on his face.

The authors concluded that there is not general bias toward looking at someone else’s face when given the opportunity. The only time people will try to read a face is if the person is speaking. If the person is doing something else, it’s the body part that’s moving which attracts the viewer’s gaze.

As the authors conclude, “Our hands seem to play just as important a role in orienting people’s attention as our eyes do.”  However, if the person looks directly at the viewer while performing a manual task, then the viewer will respond in kind and look at the individual’s face (which is why magicians talk so much).

When someone’s gaze is directed at you, then your tendency will be to stare back, in a “non-verbal acknowledgment.” Looking at someone who looks at you, therefore, becomes a key aspect of nonverbal communication.

It’s natural, then, to stare at someone—especially if the person is speaking softly or doing something interesting that you can watch. What makes the person stared at uncomfortable, then, would seem to be a mismatch between the appropriateness of the situation and whether it presents a logical basis for staring. It feels odd to be the target of someone’s undiluted attention if you’re not initiating eye contact or if you’re not doing anything special with your hands or feet that merits an out-and-out stare.

A staring contest can be fun if it’s a game both of you are playing, but off-putting in the extreme if you’re an unwilling participant.

Research contact: @swhitbo

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