Looking someone in the eye during a dialogue is essential. You immediately notice a lot of things when someone avoids the gaze of their interlocutor, and in these cases, it is assumed that maintaining eye contact with someone is uncomfortable, either out of shyness or because at that moment is hiding Something.
It is true that people who are very shy or have a social phobia may find it difficult to look into the eyes of a close stranger (and in the latter’s case, they may become totally incapable of it). The same goes for people with autism spectrum disorders.
However, in some situations, people who do not meet these characteristics may also find it difficult to look directly at each other’s students. What is the reason for this?
When keeping eye contact costs
It is generally assumed that dodging someone’s gaze is a sign of insecurity. The idea was that it is an unconscious and involuntary action which expresses the fear of being discovered.
This is not a crazy explanation, after all, the face is the part of our body where our emotions are most and best expressed, and fear is one of them. The eye area, in particular, is particularly expressive, as it is surrounded by small, very sensitive muscles that react to any reaction from our limbic system, the part of the brain most related to feelings.
Outraged, a person’s eyes direct us to attention. They can literally tell us the direction of the next physical element that you are observing, and they can also reveal when you are focusing on your memories or on the mental operations you are performing.
For example, when someone improvises an excuse, they are more likely to keep their gaze lost longer than usual, and the trajectory of their gaze appears erratic and with somewhat chaotic movement.
Over time people learn that we can find out a lot about each other’s mental state by looking them in the eye, but we have also come to the conclusion that this same principle can be applied to us. For that, without realizing it, we learn that nerves and looking someone in the eye are a bad combination, Because he can betray us.
Look away in case of shyness
When you are a shy person or have a social phobia, what you want to hide are the insecurities themselves, which we spontaneously associate with the “bad guy”. This way, even if we don’t lie or withhold important information, if we are shy, we will learn to look away as a strategy so as not to give too many clues about our mental life.
But the anxiety of being aware of this strategy in turn produces more nervousness and stress, which gives more reasons not to look someone in the eye, Thus creating a tail-biting fish-like situation. There are more and more reasons to try not to let the other person know what is going on in our mind.
In this way, we can say that looking away is a strategy which starts from irrationality and which, in practice, is very unnecessary and even counterproductive. Unfortunately, being aware of this fact does not improve matters, as it is something that is partly beyond our control.
A new explanation for the inability to look in the eyes
The explanation we have just seen is based on the learning and the feelings it produces in us to believe that we must prevent the other from knowing something that we know. However, another explanation has recently been found which does not contradict the above, but complements it.
In a study conducted at the University of Tokyo, a number of volunteers were recruited and offered to perform a word association task. The funny thing was that when performing this task looking into a person’s eyes, the photograph was projected in front of him, his performance dropped significantly, despite not knowing these people at all or having to interact with them beyond just staring.
This research could be an indication that just looking someone in the eye is, in and of itself, an activity to focus on a good part of our brain. We may be predisposed to use many of our nervous system’s resources to process information from the other person’s face, and there are times when this makes us unable to do anything else; having a complicated or thought-based conversation, for example.
In other words, we would not dodge the gaze of the other to the point of directly hiding our small expressive movements from them, but we would do so to prevent a large part of our concentration from being “stuck” in their gaze., We leaving without the ability to do other mental operations.