Eye Contact: The Surprising Truth About How Much Is Normal

In TV shows and films, actors are shown staring into each other’s eyes as they deliver their lines — is this realistic?

In TV shows and films, actors are shown staring into each other’s eyes as they deliver their lines — is this realistic?

Strangers rarely look each other in the eye when conversing, a surprising study of body language finds.

In fact, mutual eye gaze accounts for as little as 3.5 percent of the time when two people are interacting.

The rest of the time people are sometimes looking at each other’s mouths, but mostly they are looking away.

When people do look at each other, though, however briefly, this look conveys important social messages.

For example, turn-taking is usually signalled by mutual eye gaze: the person who has finished speaking looks back at their conversational partner, as if to say: ‘Now it’s your turn’.

These glances at each other’s eyes regulate joint attention: when we are both looking at the same thing, we know we are both talking about it.

Gaze can signal social status: we look more at people who have high social status, partly because we are paying more attention to them, as befits their status.

Mostly looking away

The research included 7 pairs of opposite-sex strangers who chatted while they worked on a task together.

Ms Florence Mayrand, the study’s first author, explained the results:

“We discovered that participants spent only about 12 percent of conversation time in interactive looking, meaning that they gazed at each other’s faces simultaneously for just 12 percent of the interaction duration.

Even more surprisingly, within those interactions, participants engaged in mutual eye-to-eye contact only 3.5 percent of the time.”

People mostly looked away from each other, and when they did look at the other person’s face, split this time between the mouth and eye regions.

Another study has shown that people generally cannot distinguish whether you are looking at their eyes or their mouths — it all counts as ‘eye contact’ (Rogers et al., 2019).

When people did look each other in the eye they were more likely then to look in the same direction afterwards.

This suggests the importance of eye gaze for mutual attention.

Ms Mayrand said:

“This study is one of the first to show the prevalence of eye-to-eye looking during real-life interactions.

We found that, surprisingly, direct eye-to-eye contact was quite rare during interactions, but that it is significant for social dynamics.

The time we engage in eye-to-eye contact, even if for a few seconds, appears to be an important predictive factor for subsequent social behavior.”

Look into my eyes

All those TV shows and films in which actors are shown staring into each other’s eyes as they deliver their lines, then, are wildly unrealistic.

The fact that we accept this depiction of human interaction without question suggests we ourselves see it as somehow normal or at least an ideal to be aimed for.

Avoiding direct eye contact is thought to make one look untrustworthy, low in confidence, socially anxious or a poor communicator.

In reality, naturally people do not look each other in the eye that much and anyone who does gaze directly into another person’s eyes may come across as weird in many situations (unless they are proposing marriage or starting a fight).

The research may be some relief to people who dislike looking directly into other people’s eyes or being looked at themselves.


The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (Mayrand et al., 2023).

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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