How uncomfortable it can be to stare

When eye contact becomes uncomfortable

Spontaneous eye contact seems to obey certain rules in a packed subway. British researchers have now determined how long two people can look each other in the eye without feeling uncomfortable.

Animals communicate by looking at each other whether they feel threatened or attracted. In humans, too, direct eye contact is an important form of non-verbal communication. Looking too long or too intensely can easily irritate us. Clinical studies show that deviations in rigid patterns and dilated pupils can be indications of mental disorders, autism, or schizophrenia.

3.2 seconds on average

In a psychological study by University College London, around 500 volunteer participants from 56 different nations were tested for their “rigidity”. Actors looked at them for different lengths of time on a monitor, while the direction and duration of their gaze and changes in the pupils were measured with the help of eye tracking. The individual video clips then had to be rated as more or less pleasant.

The “Preferred Gaze Duration” (PGD) of the test subjects was 3.2 seconds on average. None of the test persons found eye contact less than a second or more than nine seconds pleasant, the majority preferred two to five seconds.

One can object to the structure of the study that it is a pure simulation and not real social encounters. This could also explain the long average value of more than three seconds. As the researchers point out, the results would be in line with smaller, earlier studies in which “real people” exchanged glances.

Only old men look longer

To their surprise, the group of psychologists around Nicola Binetti did not see any connection between personality traits (e.g. assessment of the attractiveness of the counterpart) and PGD in their current work. Disinterested, spontaneous eye contact can take as long as love at first sight.

Physical characteristics such as dilated pupils, heart rate and oxygen content of the blood also had no influence on the duration of the desired gaze. According to the study, only the age of men who look at a woman has an influence: the older the man, the longer he prefers to look a woman in the eye.

Alexa Lutteri, science.ORF.at

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