When I was growing up and my mother wanted to “point out the error of my ways”, I remember that she often prefaced her no doubt well-intentioned words of advice with: “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Depending on how much I wanted to hear her “words of wisdom”, especially if I disagreed with her or was embarrassed because I had been caught out in some way, I must have often looked away because the other phrase I remember was: “Don’t you turn away when I’m speaking to you!”
Why is it that, in our culture at least, we want people to look at us when we are making a point? When I am presenting at a meeting, conference or a workshop, I know that my amygdalae, our ‘fear factory’, are quick to generate a feeling of concern that I may have lost someone’s interest if I see them looking out the window, staring at their fingernails or into space.
But is there another explanation?
According to research published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, when young children avert their gaze from the face of someone questioning them, they become better at solving challenging problems.
Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon a psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland said that taking our gaze away from the human face was very important when trying to concentrate.
In her study Dr Doherty-Sneddon found that, when looking away, five-year-olds answered 72% of questions well. But when children had been instructed to not look away when thinking, they answered just 50% correctly. “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.”
The eyes have it or is it the amygdala?
And that brings us to the amygdala. As adults, this almond shaped structure in our brain is necessary not just for experiencing emotions like fear, but also for quickly recognising the presence of these emotions in others. Simply looking at a face our amygdalae immediately make an assessment that someone is angry or frustrated.
However as we know from The Almond Effect®, this fast assessment might not be correct but we often react before we’ve taken the time to think about what someone is really feeling and expressing and modifying our actions accordingly.
It all begins when we are babies. According to some research, babies, up until around 9 months, stare at everyone including strangers as part of the natural development of the amygdala.
Then for another period in babies’ growth, as the amygdala further develops, looking at strangers can bring on floods of tears and anxiety. This apparently is all part of the process of forming enduring attachments. I found one explanation of this here, “The Deprived Amygdala & the Serial Killer”.
Eventually, with a fully developed normal brain including matured amygdalae we use the visual information we gain from looking at others to trigger our actions.
Poor eye contact
So what could this mean if we experience poor eye contact from our team, our customers, our family, our audience?
Dr Doherty-Sneddon also made this point: “We always find that gaze aversion peaks when children and adults are thinking about things,” she said. “We’ve also always found that there’s an increase in gaze aversion as material gets harder. It does seem that both children and adults avert their gaze in order to try and control cognitive load.”
So next time someone isn’t looking at you when you have something important to say – be kind to yourself!
Stop yourself from assessing their reaction as disinterest, avoidance, lying or guilt. Instead consider that they are simply allowing their brain more time for cognitive processing.
They could end up agreeing with you!