Sudden eye contact: what it really means

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A student huddles over his exam in a gymnasium packed with other test takers when suddenly he looks up at the professor and makes eye contact. The professor immediately takes note. Is the student in distress?

What does he need? “There’s something very unique about this action, this fast movement and direct gaze,” says Professor Tim Welsh, whose recent research was inspired by this very scenario.

Eye contact, or direct gaze, has been researched extensively, but Welsh and his peers, Anne Bockler (Radboud University) and Robrecht van der Wel (Rutgers University), are the first to examine what happens when someone suddenly changes their gaze to look directly at you, combining the social cue of eye contact with a sudden movement.

Their research, published in the January issue of Psychological Science, examined whether this sudden direct gaze is processed in a single special channel or in a pair of individual channels.

What they found is that there are two independent channels working together to enhance our engagement with these sudden looks. Without the movement, the gaze would not be as powerful. And the movement alone would not elicit the same response.

The research team drew these conclusions by measuring subjects’ reaction times and attention to detail when looking at a screen with four faces. Participants were seated in front of a screen and a keyboard.The screen displayed four pictures of a human face; two of them were looking at the subjects and two of them were looking away. Each face had a number on the forehead, which intermittently changed to a letter. The subjects had to indicate as fast as possible which letter they saw by pressing a response key.The time between the change of the display and the subject’s response served as an indication of how strongly attention was captured by a given face: the shorter the reaction time, the stronger the attention capture.

The researchers found that reaction times were shorter when the letter was on the forehead of a face that suddenly gazed directly at the participants, affirming what many of us experience every day – direct eye contact is a powerful thing. Moreover, moving faces capture attention more strongly than static faces. When the eye contact and motion are combined, the result is even more profound.

“So, in the case of the exam-taking students, cheaters really shouldn’t look up right before they engage in suspect behaviour,” Welsh explains. “Whether they know it or not, they’re asking us to pay extra attention to them.”

Valerie Iancovich is a writer with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto.

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