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Stop Staring at Me!


[Photo by simpologist]

Continuing the weird psychology series, here’s a couple of studies you can replicate yourself – if you’ve got the nerve. In the first you could be risking bodily harm from enraged motorists, while the second has a twist in the tail. They both show the power of staring at other people and they’re both fantastically simple social psychology experiments.

Loitering with intent

Here’s the experimental procedure for the first. You loiter by a set of traffic lights where people are idling in their cars, waiting for the lights to change. Then, in the full view of the driver at the head of the queue, you stare at them mercilessly. When the lights change you hit your trusty stopwatch and time how long it takes them to get to some predetermined point at the other side of the junction.

You then repeat this procedure the next time the lights change back to red and a queue reforms. This time, however, you only glance at the person in the first car – don’t stare. Then time how long it takes them to get across the junction. Stay there for the rest of the day repeating this procedure, sometimes staring, sometimes glancing, then noting down how quickly drivers pull away.

If you replicate the original experiment successfully you should find that people you stared at pull away significantly faster than those you only glanced at.

A stare becomes appealing

While I like that study, it doesn’t have the pleasing twist in the tail of the second study. For this one you’ll need to position yourself on the other side of the road from, and facing, a group of pedestrians about to cross the street. Then you do the same staring at some people and only glancing at some people as before. The recipients of your piercing gaze should, again, cross the road faster.

Now for the twist.

In your hand during the experiment, you need to be holding some shopping bags. While staring at someone crossing the road, you need to drop one of these bags as if by accident. If the original experiment holds up, you should find that those you stared at are much more likely to help you pick it up. It seems the simple act of dropping something transforms the meaning of your gaze.

Either that or they just think you are crazy and in need of help.

By the way, in the second study, it may make a difference if you are male or female. The original study was carried out with a female researcher.

Both of these studies (reported by Ellsworth, 1975) show how important eye contact is to humans, but it’s the second that shows how sensitive it is to context. With one subtle variation, what was unattractive staring can suddenly become an appeal for help.

Good luck with your field research!

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