A possible explanation for why people find it hard to maintain eye contact when talking

December 28, 2016 by Bob Yirka report
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

(Medical Xpress)—A pair of researchers with Kyoto University has found a possible explanation for why people sometimes have trouble maintaining eye contact when talking with someone face-to-face. In their paper published in the journal Cognition, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura describe experiments they carried out with volunteers to learn more about how the phenomenon works and then discuss their findings.

Most everyone knows that maintaining eye contact with another person while speaking can sometimes be difficult—at times, the urge to look away becomes overwhelming. In some instances, it is clear that such breaks just seem natural to keep things from becoming awkward, or it signals that someone has grown bored with the conversation—but at other times, the researchers suggest, it is because we are trying to keep our brains from overloading.

To better understand what is going on in the brain during conversation, the researchers enlisted the assistance of 26 volunteers who were asked to participate in a common word-association game in which a person was shown a word (a noun) and was then asked to offer an immediate response (a verb), e.g. when given the word "ball," a reply might be the word "throw." In the lab, the volunteers interacted with a face on a computer (that sometimes looked away) as they played the game with different types of words that the researchers had preselected—some were easy while others were more difficult—coming up with a verb for "sky," for example, can be difficult for some because of the lack of choices, while coming up with a response to a word like "leaf" may be difficult because it has so many options to choose from.

The researchers then compared responses to the words with how long it took a volunteer to respond and their tendency to break eye contact. They found that the volunteers were likely to take more time when responding to harder words, but not as much time if they broke eye contact. This, the research pair suggest, indicates that the dual task of maintaining eye contact (and the inherent intimate connection it involves) while also racking the brain for a word to meet the request is just too demanding—to save itself, the pushes for breaking so it can focus exclusively on finding a word that will fulfill the obligation.

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More information: Shogo Kajimura et al, When we cannot speak: Eye contact disrupts resources available to cognitive control processes during verb generation, Cognition (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.10.002

Abstract
Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation. This suggests that there is interference between these processes. We hypothesized that such interference occurs because both processes share cognitive resources of a domain-general system and explored the influence of eye contact on simultaneous verb generation processes (i.e., retrieval and selection). In the present experiment, viewing a movie of faces with eyes directed toward the viewer delayed verbal generation more than a movie of faces with averted eyes; however, this effect was only present when both retrieval and selection demands were high. The results support the hypothesis that eye contact shares domain-general cognitive resource with verb generation. This further indicates that a full understanding of functional and dysfunctional communication must consider the interaction and interference of verbal and non-verbal channels.

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10 comments

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NoStrings
not rated yet Dec 28, 2016
Eye contact, aye? It is a an expectation to do in some places, and not so much in other countries.
Logically, it is understandable to initiate a conversation with an eye contact, but in 10 second or so it is completely optional. We are communicating via sound after all.

Then again, there is the attractiveness (or not) factor, of the face you may have to be 'expected' to keep an eye contact with. Just kidding on this one.
iridi
5 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2016
Neat! I've never understood why people insist on eye contact. I have autism (and the sensory processing issues it comes with) and I consider sight/eye contact to be an unnecessary stimulus when I need to be focusing on sound. It's distracting to have to worry about yet another thing when there's already so much going on that makes it harder to take in speech. Let me unfocus my eyes without it being "offensive", please!
Telekinetic
not rated yet Dec 28, 2016
Kyoto University? The Japanese culture is painfully humble, with apologies built into many everyday exchanges, so can one really call this study truly objective and applicable to other cultures? I personally
like to focus my gaze directly into the eyes of those I am speaking with, and as a result have much more meaningful conversations. I find it rewarding to lock gazes and make that human connection.
rrrander
not rated yet Dec 29, 2016
How many good people didn't get jobs because of crackpot theories of honesty based on holding eye contact?
clinicpta
not rated yet Dec 30, 2016
true just like when one is lying eye contact is lost. but what caught my attention with this article is that lack of eye contact prevents the brain from overloading!
i personally rarely make eye contact and i know its bad but i should adjust that since am raising kids
VOR_
not rated yet Dec 31, 2016
I've met liars that ask for eye contact! "look at me"...then lie.
Also : "look me in the eye and tell me that"...they can !
Eye contact is so many things cultural and psychological.
It's really interesting. I think it's under-studied.
"lost in your eyes" eye contact seems to promote day dreaming about the person/what they are thinking? Does seem to be a more intimate thing somehow...seems to be that is..
but how is it really more intimate? (if it is). Or does it just seem that way? Like sitting very close?
But you can be across a table. It's certain non-verbal, but what does it communicate if anything?
Julio
not rated yet Jan 02, 2017
Hmm... I keep eye contact longer with my girlfriend, my parents and relatives but it is shorter when communicating with strangers or not too close friends. I don't feel overloaded. I think they put more focus on cognitive processes and explanations than in cultural, social and or psycho-dynamic approaches?
Julio
Jan 02, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2017
I've met liars that ask for eye contact! "look at me"...then lie.
Also : "look me in the eye and tell me that"...they can !
Eye contact is so many things cultural and psychological.
It's really interesting
It can also be an indication of a dangerous pathology.

"In the the book Violent Attachments, women and men have noted the particular stare of the psychopath - it is an intense, relentless gaze that seems to preclude his destruction of his victim or target. Women, in particular, have reported this stare, which is related to the "predatorial" (reptilian) gaze; it is as if the psychopath is directing all of his intensity toward you through his eyes, a sensation that one woman reported as a feeling of "being eaten." They tend to invade peoples' space either by their sudden intrusions or intimidating look-overs..."
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2017
Kyoto University? The Japanese culture is painfully humble, with apologies built into many everyday exchanges
Oh yeah I forgot about ww2.
I personally
like to focus my gaze directly into the eyes of those I am speaking with, and as a result have much more meaningful conversations. I find it rewarding to lock gazes and make that human connection
-See my previous comment.

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