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In Your Sights: How Eye Contact Enhances a Conversation
  • Steven Reinberg
  • Posted September 14, 2021

In Your Sights: How Eye Contact Enhances a Conversation

Seeing eye to eye -- literally -- makes conversations more appealing, a new study finds.

"Eye contact is really immersive and powerful," said researcher Sophie Wohltjen, a graduate student in psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College.

"When two people are having a conversation, eye contact signals that shared attention is high -- that they are in peak synchrony with one another," Wohltjen said in a college news release.

And while deep in conversation, their pupils dilate in synchrony, the researchers noted.

"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," Wohltjen explained in a college news release. "Eye contact seems to be one way we create a shared space while also allowing space for new ideas."

For the study, 94 participants wore eye-tracking glasses during 10-minute conversations, which were videotaped. Participants then watched the discussions and rated how engaged they were.

The researchers looked at pupillary reactions during instances of eye contact. They found that people make eye contact as pupil synchrony is at its peak. Pupillary response decreases and recovers when eye contact is broken. The data also demonstrated a correlation between instances of eye contact and higher levels of engagement during the conversation.

"In the past, it has been assumed that eye contact creates synchrony, but our findings suggest that it's not that simple," said co-author Thalia Wheatley, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. "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."

Wheatley described conversation as "a creative act in which people build a shared story from independent voices."

She added, "Moments of eye contact seem to signal when we have achieved shared understanding and need to contribute our independent voice."

The report was published Sept. 14 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

Michigan State University has more on the value of eye contact.

SOURCE: Dartmouth College, news release, Sept. 10, 2021

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