Eye Contact – A Declining Communications Tool?

A recent article from the Wall Street Journal discusses the effects of declining eye contact in the workplace, citing our own research on ideal eye contact behavior, and we wanted to share our further analysis.

As background, we know that because of evolution it is easy for humans to “speak” with their eyes. An article from the New York Times points out “neither chimpanzees nor any of the other 220 species of nonhuman primates have whites of the eyes.” Anthropologists believe that we developed a white backdrop for the iris and pupils of our eyes so that others can easily tell where we are looking. It is believed this serves the purpose of cooperation – we are able to cooperate faster and easier with each other through the use of our eyes.

Cooperation is important because it leads to connection and trust. When two people feel that they are cooperating towards a common goal, they also feel that they are able to trust one another. Studies have shown that increased eye contact can lead to increased participation from group members. Dr. Roel Vertegaal, an expert on eye communication between humans, conducted a study showing that subjects were 22% more likely to speak when gaze behavior was synchronized with conversational attention. Also, task performance was 46% higher when gaze was synchronized.

Nevertheless, as the WSJ article points out, face-to-face meetings and eye contact are becoming less common in the workplace. A study from Gregory Northcraft from the University of Illinois and Kevin Rockmann of George Mason University says that “high-tech communication strips away the personal interaction needed to breed trust, a key ingredient in getting workers to pull together and carry their share of the load.” Their study had more than 200 undergraduate students work in teams, some working face-to-face, others via video conference, and others worked through email. “Face-to-face contact yielded the most trust and cooperation while e-mail netted the least, with videoconferences somewhere in between”, Northcraft said. The study goes on to suggest that without face-to-face interaction, workers are less likely to trust that the other person is working hard on the project, and therefore are less willing to work hard themselves. This supports the theory that we evolved with eyes better suited for eye contact in order to cooperate with one another. Through a better understanding of why we use eye contact, we are able to improve how and when we use eye contact in communicating with others.

So what is the ideal usage of eye contact? We turned to our communications analytics database and found that adults make eye contact between 30% and 60% of the time in an average conversation. However, to make an emotional connection, the ideal amount of eye contact is between 60% and 70%. We also found that direct eye contact that is held for more than 10 seconds at a time is unnerving for the person you are talking to. As opportunities for face-to-face interactions in the workplace decline, it is important to take advantage of their benefits when they do occur, through effective eye-contact.