You’ve heard it time and time again before an important meeting with a new client or big interview for a lucrative new position: Make eye contact! After all, no one wants to do business with someone who can’t even look at others directly. Shyness isn’t always a negative, but bravado and confidence is the name of the game when it comes to building connections and career building.
What is “shared attention” and why you need to know about it
Interestingly, however, new research from Dartmouth College finds that breaking eye contact may be just as important as making it in the first place. So, don’t stare for too long into the hiring manager’s eyes!
Researchers investigated why repeated instances of eye contact are so common during conversations, and discovered a fascinating paradoxical relationship at play. Essentially, eye contact usually occurs naturally when two people are on the same page mid-conversation. Researchers refer to such moments as “shared attention.”
When your pupils dilate in unison
When eye contact occurs during instances of shared attention, both sets of pupils will actually dilate in unison. However, this “pupillary synchrony” only lasts for a few moments. If eye contact is maintained for any longer than that, synchrony (and shared attention) will decline rapidly until eye contact is broken. From there the process of building up shared attention begins again.
“Eye contact is really immersive and powerful,” explains lead study author Sophie Wohltjen, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “When two people are having a conversation, eye contact signals that shared attention is high —that they are in peak synchrony with one another. As eye contact persists, that synchrony then decreases. We think this is also good because too much synchrony can make a conversation stale. An engaging conversation requires at times being on the same page and at times saying something new. Eye contact seems to be one way we create a shared space while also allowing space for new ideas.”
Generally, we tend to think of eye contact as a way of promoting greater conversation engagement, but these findings suggest the opposite. Eye contact occurs after we’re already on the same page with whoever we’re conversing with, and holding that gaze can actually screw up the flow of the conversation. In this way, breaking eye contact provides an opportunity to refresh or reset an ongoing talk.
“In the past, it has been assumed that eye contact creates synchrony, but our findings suggest that it’s not that simple,” says senior study author Thalia Wheatley, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, as well as principal investigator of the Dartmouth Social Systems Laboratory. “We make eye contact when we are already in sync, and, if anything, eye contact seems to then help break that synchrony. Eye contact may usefully disrupt synchrony momentarily in order to allow for a new thought or idea.”
To reach these conclusions the research team gathered together a collection of Dartmouth students and separated everyone into conversational pairs. Participants were allowed to talk about whatever they wanted for a 10-minute period. During the conversations, everyone sat directly across from each other and wore eye-tracking glasses.
All talks were recorded in both audio and video format. After finishing up their respective conversations, each participant was brought into a room alone and asked to rate how engaged they were throughout the talk.
The ensuing results detailed how eye contact usually occurs in unison with both greater engagement and increased pupillary synchrony. Upon said eye contact, however, that synchrony quickly drops and only begins to recover once eye contact is broken.
It isn’t so much that the long-held belief eye contact suggests cohesion during conversation is wrong, but that it also indicates it’s time to keep the talk moving with a new idea or sentiment.
“Conversation is a creative act in which people build a shared story from independent voices.” Prof. Wheatley concludes, “Moments of eye contact seem to signal when we have achieved shared understanding and need to contribute our independent voice.”
If all of this has you second-guessing your eye movements ahead of a big talk with someone in your life, the best advice that can be taken from this work is not to overthink it. Do your best to engage in the conversation and eye contact will probably happen all on its own. Just remember to break that contact after a few moments!
The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.