People use their eyes during social interaction in three primary ways: looking in the direction of the other person’s face, often referred to as gaze; looking away from their partner’s face or gaze aversion; and mutual gaze, in which both interactants look in the direction of the other’s face and eye area at the same time. Human beings engage in relatively little direct eye-to-eye contact. For humans and other animal species, eye behavior plays an important role in survival, reproduction, and building/maintaining social and role relationships. Being watched is as important as watching others. As the target of another’s eye gaze, a person’s performance is infused with significance – in either positive or negative ways. Because of its importance to human interaction, people are sensitive to the absence of gaze when it is expected and its presence when it is not. We often perceive eye-to-eye contact when the eyes are actually tracking many points around the area of the eyes.
The direction, frequency, and duration of eye gaze serve several individual and communicative functions in human transactions. Gaze can serve more than one function at a time. One function of gaze is to serve as a mechanism for regulating the flow of interaction. To initiate interaction, people often look into the eye and face area of another person to signal an open channel for communicating. When strangers meet, they typically give each other a brief glance of recognition. When a person’s gaze is extended too long, it can make a more elaborated response seem almost obligatory. The closing of communication channels, in contrast, is accompanied by a decrease in gaze. Eye gaze also regulates the flow of interaction during conversation. As a listener, it can signal a desire to take a speaking turn; as a speaker, an other-directed glance may signal the end of a thought unit or grammatical break. The amount of eye gaze varies from situation to situation, but listeners typically gaze more than speakers. Seeking feedback is another function of eye gaze. Each interactant wants to know whether their partner is paying attention, understanding, accepting, or in some other way registering a response to the dialogue.
Eye behavior also plays a major role in signaling the degree of interpersonal involvement as interactants negotiate their relationships. For example, eye gaze, or the lack of it, is a critical element in communicating increasing or decreasing intimacy. We look at things and people that are rewarding or potentially rewarding to us. Our pupils dilate when we are interested, attentive, and aroused. Some evidence suggests that other people notice pupil dilation and respond favorably to it, even though they may not be aware of the reason for their positive attraction. With strangers and acquaintances we tend to reciprocate or match eye gaze when we perceive their behavior to be generally congruent with our expectations and involvement preferences; we tend to compensate or offset another’s eye gaze when it is perceived as a major violation of our expectations and preferences.
Eye gaze is used by infants and caregivers to establish an early bonding, but mothers with “difficult” children manifest less intimacy with their children by looking at them less. Gazing at others is also a way for adults to signal a desire for affiliation and affection, and for romantic partners to indicate the depth of their intimate feelings. In western cultures, women often call attention to their eyes by decorating them. One female flirtation ritual involves a pattern of relatively short glances at a person of interest followed by slightly longer ones. Gaze and mutual gaze frequency and duration are key factors in establishing close relationships, but a variety of patterns may develop as a couple sets their own rules for a long-term relationship. Happily married couples may even look at each other less than those who are dissatisfied, particularly when negative messages are being exchanged. If a close relationship continues to deteriorate, the need to threaten and monitor the other’s behavior decreases and eye behavior will decrease correspondingly as the desire for involvement wanes. Thus, the frequency and duration of eye gaze can be a reflection of a negative or confrontational relationship as well as an intimate one, but both show a high degree of involvement by the participants.
Many formal and informal relationships necessitate the negotiation of dominance. Human beings, like other animals, tend to exert dominance visually by staring and subordination/submission by avoiding eye gaze. In informal conversations, dominance is exhibited by increasing the amount of gazing typically exhibited while speaking so it approximates the amount of gazing while listening. The pattern for people who perceive themselves to be relatively similar in power and status is to look more while listening than speaking. Reciprocated staring signals a challenge associated with dominance. It is a peaceful way of signaling aggressive intent, but mutual gaze can be highly arousing, which can lead to more physical forms of aggression. Variations in eye gaze patterns may also accompany a person’s ascribed status in an organizational hierarchy. The eye behavior of new and lower-status employees may signal alertness and attentiveness as they try to learn the rules and accommodate to those who have more status and power. For those with status and power, the motivation to monitor the behavior of those around them may not be particularly strong if they feel their status and power are unchallenged. However, when challenges to their status and power are perceived, we would predict an increase in gaze used to monitor feedback as well as an increase in the use of gaze to assert the kind of dominance and power a person feels is befitting his or her status.
The way a person uses his or her eyes may also reflect both cognitive and emotional activity. It is not unusual for a person to avert his or her gaze during “difficult” or complex information processing. Silently looking away from high-intensity visual stimuli with a “thinking face” not only creates a cognitive processing environment with less noise, but may simultaneously tell the listener not to assume the speaking turn. Averting gaze to collect one’s thoughts represents a major interruption in the flow of speech, but decreasing eye gaze is also likely to accompany less dramatic breaks and hesitations in speech fluency. Some research makes a connection between the direction of gaze aversion and the type of cognitive activity occurring. For example, glances to the right have been associated with left-hemispheric brain activity and glances to the left have been associated with right-hemispheric brain activity.
Mutual gaze, whether it reflects a positive or negative intent, has an emotional impact and increases a person’s heart rate, galvanic skin response, and other physiological measures of arousal. The eyes themselves may also reflect a person’s emotional state, as in the excess blinking accompanying anxiety. In addition, a person’s eyes are a crucial feature in communicating facial expressions of emotion – e.g., anger, surprise, sadness, fear, disgust, happiness. Some emotions can be accurately identified by viewing only the eyes. The tensing or relaxation of the lower eyelid helps to distinguish fear from surprise, for example. The upper eyelid is very different in expressions of sadness and happiness. With the addition of the eyebrows, still more facial expressions of emotion can be accurately identified.
Influences On Patterns Of Gaze
The meaning of gaze patterns, like other communication behavior, is dependent on the context in which the behavior takes place – i.e., the relationship of the interactants; their gender, age, and status; the situational expectations; the goals and motivations of the participants; accompanying verbal and nonverbal behavior; and the like. For example, eye gaze may decrease when interactants are physically closer than they want to be and increase when the distance between them is perceived as too great. This same eye pattern can be observed with conversational topics perceived as too intimate or not intimate enough for the parties involved.
Certain characteristics of the interactants themselves may also affect eye gaze. Vast differences in height will necessitate increasing conversational distance, which, in turn, will affect the pattern of gaze. When people expect to interact with a disabled person, they tend to gaze in their direction less than when they don’t expect to talk to them. The frequency, duration, and reciprocity of gaze by females in informal conversation is greater than for males. The greater a person’s racial prejudice, the more likely this person is to gaze less when interacting with members of the racial group in question – provided, of course, it is not clearly a confrontational encounter. The frequency of eye gaze seems to be correlated with certain personality characteristics as well. Socially dominant individuals gaze more in informal conversation, but shy people who want to be sociable tend to look less. Extraversion and openness tend to be associated with a tendency to gaze more while the clinically depressed and autistic people tend to avert their gaze more often. During critical feedback, people with low self-esteem tend to gaze more at the source of the feedback than do people with high self-esteem. The opposite pattern occurs during positive feedback.
Rules about looking and not looking vary from culture to culture, but too much looking and too little looking are commonly not approved. Too much gazing is often associated with anger or disrespect and too little gazing with shyness, inattention, and dishonesty.
The most common measure and the basis of most behavioral research is the frequency of gaze. To a lesser extent, studies draw conclusions from the duration of gaze. Relatively little of what we know is based on the direction of gaze.
Measurements are taken by observers, with or without stopwatches and counters. Some observations are made by coders as they view video-taped interactions. A few studies use eye-tracking devices, but they are too intrusive to be of much use in studies of natural interaction. Observers may be reliable, but validity is likely to suffer except under pristine conditions. Glances that appear to be in the direction of the other person’s face may, in fact, not be. Coders often use head movement as the basis for decisions about gaze. The greater the distance between observer and observed, the greater the chance for error. Animated conversations often involve frequent and erratic head and body movements, some of which may even shield an observer from viewing eye behavior. Some of these problems can be reduced with careful preparation and observer training.
Most of what we know about eye behavior is based on observations of individuals. We need to learn more about how eye gaze is manifested and coordinated over the course of an interaction and how each person’s eye behavior affects the behavior of the other. In addition, we have relatively little knowledge of how eye gaze is perceived. A split-second image from one’s peripheral vision may be enough to register awareness and trigger reaction to another’s eye gaze.
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