Social Skills – Eye Contact

Question: How much eye contact is ideal? If you make too much eye contact it feels a little creepy and if you don’t make enough eye contact people might think you’re aloof or insecure, so how much eye contact is expected?

Quick Advice: On average, look straight into someone’s pupils for 3-4 seconds for every one second breaking eye contact. Think 4:1 ratio.

Too much eye contact feels weird
Not enough eye contact is unsettling

What Does the Science Say?

Study Setup: Alan Johnson and his colleagues conducted a clever study in which they asked participants watch video clips of actors looking at the participants. They varied the amount of eye contact between videos, so sometimes the person on the screen looked at you for one second, others three seconds, some for nine, etc. The researchers asked participants to rate how comfortable they felt during each clip.

Results: The results suggest that the average subject was most comfortable with 3.3 second of eye contact from others. In practice, look directly into someone’s eyes for 3 to 4 seconds, then break your gaze for 1 or 2 seconds before making eye contact again.

Application to Real Life: If you want to practice when you’re by yourself, I would recommend downloading a Tabata Timer for your phone. They’re exercise timer apps for interval training, which is repeated bursts of exercise followed by short periods of rest. But you can use the tabata timer by setting it to three seconds ‘on’ and one second of ‘rest’ that will give you a rough approximation of how it feels to maintain the expected intervals of eye contact.

See the study in this summary article at Scientific American. See more nuances about eye contact in this helpful Psychology Today article and in Chapter 3 of Awkward.