Eye contact, that core human connector, begins in infancy and continues to be a key communication skill throughout our lives.
At just a few days old, babies have been shown to recognize faces, and by eight weeks, they begin making eye contact when held.
Babies are pretty smart. Within a few months, they learn that if they want that fuzzy thing on the table, they just have to break their parent’s gaze, glance over at the thing, then back again. And just like that, the fuzzy thing appears.
Soon, a baby’s brain pieces together that every time they ask for that fuzzy thing, they hear the sound “bear.” Eventually, the connection that started with that early eye contact evolves into mimicking words and early speaking. Multiple studies have shown that the earlier and more consistently children have face-to-face interactions, the higher their verbal skills will likely be.
Once those verbal skills are in place, eye contact remains a vital part of communication. And whether you’re speaking to a friend, a small class, an auditorium, or to the entire internet, how you maintain eye contact correlates to how honest, competent, and confident your listeners perceive you.
On their podcast Think Fast, Talk Smart, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturers Burt Alper and Matt Abrahams stress the importance of eye contact, even when speaking to a skeptic. By not looking away when someone challenges what you are saying, you convey confidence, which in turn makes listeners more likely to want to hear what you have to say.
But hardly anyone is having much direct eye contact these days. Are we doomed to human disconnection?
Not necessarily. When researchers at Tampere University in Finland compared how differently people react to seeing someone face-to-face, on a video call, or on a pre-recorded video, they found that virtual eye contact might have the same psychological impact as it does in person.
Unsurprisingly, when participants met face-to-face and made eye contact, they had a psychophysiological response -- they felt subconsciously happy.
But, surprisingly, video calls had the same effect.
According to Jonne Hietanen, first author of the study, “the autonomic arousal response to eye contact requires the perception of being seen by another. Another person's physical presence is not required for this effect.”
This is great news, because these days, we sure are on a lot of video calls.
But here’s the catch. In the study, the camera lens and screen were placed to mimic direct eye contact. But when we Zoom or FaceTime, we see each other with a slightly averted gaze. So if our happy kicks in when, as Hietanen said, we hold “the perception of being seen by another,” maybe a concerted effort to look into the camera lens more than the screen can make up a little bit for that lack of in-person connection.