Eye contact is a powerful social signal and plays a crucial role in human communication. You definitely notice when someone looks straight into your eyes, paying attention. When you look back, you two are in eye contact, and a channel for interaction is opened.
Eye contact is known to increase our physiological arousal; however, the nature of this arousal — whether eye contact encourages you to approach another person or, on the contrary, to avoid her — depends among other things on your personality. University of Tartu researchers Helen Uusberg and her supervising Professor Jüri Allik, along with University of Tampere Professor Jari Hietanen, set out to study what lies beneath these observed individual differences.
Firstly, the participants in the experiment completed a standard personality test. Then the researchers recorded the participants’ electrical brain activity while the latter were looking at another person who was either making eye contact or had her gaze averted to the side.
The researchers took care of other factors that also normally influence our reaction to eye contact, such as sympathy for a person, our mood, context, etc., making sure that these would be controlled for and thus would not influence the results of the experiment.
It appeared that people who scored highly for neuroticism in the personality test, which means that they tend to be more self-conscious and feel more anxious than others, reacted to eye contact in a way that is associated with a wish to avoid contact. To be more precise, their brain activity showed signs of avoidance motivation. Facing someone with an averted gaze felt more pleasant for these people. Also, when it was their turn to look straight into someone’s eyes, they preferred to keep it short.
Quite to the contrary, people who scored low for neuroticism were triggered to seek contact with their onlooking peers. At least the patterns of their brain activity would support this.
Professor Hietanen points out that the core of our individual psychological differences lies deep in our brains: “Our findings indicate that people do not only feel different when they are at the centre of attention but that their brain reactions also differ. For some, eye contact tunes the brain into a mode that increases the likelihood of initiating an interaction with other people. For others, the effect of eye contact may decrease this likelihood”.
To make the picture even more complicated, albeit more intriguing, we asked Helen Uusberg and Jari Hietanen, who have also studied eye contact in Japan and Finland, the following:
To what extent is eye contact shaped by one’s personality and to what extent by culture?
This question is a difficult one! Both personality and culture are likely to influence reaction, but at this point it is impossible to say anything about the degree of relative influence. To our knowledge, no study has directly investigated the effect of personality on reactions to eye contact in different cultures, and without such a study we cannot say anything for sure.
As for most phenomena, differences between groups are probably smaller than within groups also when it comes to how positively or negatively direct gaze is perceived. However, although gaze perception is very automatic and has deep evolutionary roots, in an interaction setting it is influenced also by social norms, and these vary notably in different cultures. In Japan, for instance, avoidance of eye contact in formal settings is considered to be a sign of respect, whereas the opposite is true in many Western cultures.
Most probably culture defines a sort of general framework (e.g. the meaning of the eye gaze in a certain context) and personality shapes the reactions within that framework (e.g. likelihood to interpret the gaze as negative).
People with high neuroticism are probably more likely to interpret others’ attention in a more negative way in both Eastern and Western cultures. Specific appraisals, however, depend on the culture.
Uusberg, H., Allik, J., & Hietanen, J. (2015). Eye contact reveals a relationship between neuroticism and anterior EEG asymmetry Neuropsychologia, 73, 161-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.05.008