Eye contact is a meeting of the eyes between two individuals.
In human beings, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. It is believed to show personal involvement and create intimate bonds. Mutual gaze narrows the physical gap between humans.. Coined in the early to mid-1960s, the term has come in the West to often define the act as a meaningful and important sign of confidence and social communication. The customs and significance of eye contact vary widely between cultures, with religious and social differences often altering its meaning greatly.
The study of eye contact is sometimes known as oculesics.
Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information. People, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other's eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.
In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, eye contact can provoke misunderstandings between people of different nationalities. Keeping direct eye contact with a work supervisor or elderly people leads them to assume one is being aggressive and rude — the opposite reaction of most Western societies.
Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.
Mutual eye contact that signals attraction initially begins as a brief glance and progresses into a repeated volleying of eye contact, according to Beverly Palmer, Ph.D. and professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
In the process of civil inattention strangers in close proximity, such as a crowd, avoid eye contact in order to help maintain their privacy.
A 1985 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard". A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed. A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze. Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.
A person's direction of gaze may indicate to others where his or her attention lies.
Recent studies suggest that eye contact has a positive impact on the retention and recall of information and may promote more efficient learning.
In the Islamic faith, Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's faces and eyes after the initial first eye contact, other than their legitimate partners or family members, in order to avoid potential unwanted desires. Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited. This means that eye contact between any man and woman is allowed only for a second or two. This is a must in most Islamic schools, with some exceptions depending on the case, like when teaching, testifying, or looking at a girl for marriage. If allowed, it is only allowed under the general rule: "No-Desire", clean eye-contact. Otherwise, it is not allowed, and considered "adultery of the eyes".
Japanese children are taught in school to direct their gaze at the region of their teacher's Adam's apple or tie knot. As adults, Japanese lower their eyes when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect.
In many cultures, such as East Asia and Nigeria, it is respectful not to look the dominant person in the eye, but in Western culture this can be interpreted as being "shifty-eyed", and the person judged badly because "he wouldn't look me in the eye"; references such as "shifty-eyed" can refer to suspicions regarding an individual's unrevealed intentions or thoughts. Nevertheless, the seeking of constant unbroken eye contact by the other participant in a conversation can often be considered overbearing or distracting by many even in western cultures, possibly on an instinctive or subconscious level.
A study by Phelps, Doherty-Sneddon, and Warnock concluded that children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions are more likely to answer correctly than children who maintain eye contact. According to Doherty-Sneddon:
"Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding. We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that's mentally demanding, it's unhelpful to look at faces."
Contrariwise, Doherty-Sneddon suggests that a blank stare indicates a lack of understanding.
Some people find eye contact more difficult than others. For example, those with autistic disorders or social anxiety may find eye contact to be particularly unsettling.
Patterns of eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals are also well documented.
Animals of many species, including dogs, often perceive eye contact as a threat. Many programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog. According to a report in The New Zealand Medical Journal, maintaining eye contact is one reason young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks.
In the 1990s, black bears returned to Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park after a twenty-year absence. Park officials recommend that visitors avoid direct eye contact if a bear stands on its hind legs. Chimpanzees use eye contact to signal aggression in hostile encounters, and staring at them in a zoo can induce agitated behavior.
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