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Making eye contact


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Guest Vapourware

Does anyone else have problems making eye contact?

I've found that I either make no eye contact at all or I stare too hard. I look at their mouths, collars, hands - anywhere but their eyes. Sometimes when I talk to people, I'm not even looking in their direction. Looking at people makes me feel very awkward, but not looking makes me feel rude because most people seem to value at least some eye contact some of the time [so they know you're paying attention].

God bless the Internet - at least I don't have to look at anyone  ;)

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Yep. It's gotten me in trouble too. What's weird (to my socio/psycho/anthropologist's mind) is that eye contact seems to serve some conflicting purposes in our evolved behaviour. On the one hand it is a mechanism of establishing dominance. Making eye contact can be a challenge for dominance, and avoiding eye contact can be a signal of accepting the dominance or authority of another. This is where some of us run into problems, because low self-esteem causes us to unconsciously treat a majority of people as our superiors, so we may never make eye contact.

And YET, maintaining good eye contact is a critical part of attunement, which is the foundation of most social interactions from the check-out lane to romantic bonding.

So what I find difficult (for instance), is when I'm trying to listen to my boss, who I legitimately feel is an authority (a rare thing for me) and also more dominant than me -- i.e. he's in charge, not me -- I tend to lower my eyes or look away. And he'll actually get snippy with me and say hey look at me when I'm talking. So which is it? WHat is my biological evolution telling me to do here? Attune to him socially or defer to his authority?

My theory is that this is a failing of my self-esteem and sense of identity. Actually it's also an aspect of what they call hyper-vigilance, and it's probably relevant to all us mental cases who have trouble with eye contact. Hypervigilance in a social context means that you are always on gaurd, when you shouldn't be. Like you're always slightly engaging fight-or-flight instincts even if the context should be more social. SO it's a response (lack of eye contact) to an inappropriate context (you're not actually being challenged for dominance). And then what's worse (with hypervigilance) is that generally it has an effect of making *other* people more defensive and reactive around you, because they pick up on your heightened alertness level (parentheses) and it triggered a sympathetic alertness level on their part, which they then attribute to you as if you've challenged them or done something to make them more anxious (which, non-verbally, you have).

It's true it is easier to get along with people online sometimes. Like right now you probably can't tell that I'm grinning wildly, drooling, spinning my eyes around in circles, and am completely naked and covered in blood. If you did, you'd probably put less credence in my theories about eye contact.

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And wow -- this actually explains why benzos, and in my case clonazepam, are so effective for social anxiety/phobia. By reducing the general level of anxiety, the hypervigilance is put down, and not only do I act less fight-or-flighty, but other people don't pick up on the cues and react this way to me. Other cues, incedentally, include posture, body language, pheromones, voice inflection, word choice, speech rythym, attire, ... They say 80% of communication is non-verbal.

But wow I am amazed that this actually is a pretty reasonable explanation for how this pill changes the whole social dynamic. Huh.

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The only time I have a hard time making eye contact is with my therapist and pdoc.  I guess it's because I just can't bring myself to looking them in the eye when I spill my guts out to them.

And wow -- this actually explains why benzos, and in my case clonazepam, are so effective for social anxiety/phobia. By reducing the general level of anxiety, the hypervigilance is put down, and not only do I act less fight-or-flighty, but other people don't pick up on the cues and react this way to me. Other cues, incedentally, include posture, body language, pheromones, voice inflection, word choice, speech rythym, attire, ... They say 80% of communication is non-verbal.

Maybe I should start taking my Klonopin before my appt.'s

Elizabeth

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Guest Vapourware

Thanks for the replies and especially yours, Jemini. It was quite insightful. Although I am not entirely convinced that eye contact [or lack thereof] is a biological trait per se.

However, I particularly like this:

My theory is that this is a failing of my self-esteem and sense of identity.

I agree it is probably in my case as well.

Also, Hypervigiliance is something I am guilty of doing as well. Speaking of which, I have always found it interesting that someone can be completely oblivious to their own body language.

For instance, it was very interesting for me that I wasn't aware I was being hypervigilant until a close friend said I always appeared stressed and tense. Someone else had also noted I appeared somewhat cold and arrogant.

I might consider additional medication to help me relax.

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The eye contact as a biological instinct isn't my concept, it's basic behavioral science. And anyway, we are biological, obviously we look into each others eyes -- what are you saying you don't buy here? If it weren't instinct but entirely conscious choice than you wouldn't have a problem making eye contact, right? It sort of happens by itself, even though it's under your control. Like breathing.

Don't say you're guilty of being hypervigilant. That's like saying you're guilty of having high blood pressure. This condition is mostly autonomic, although some therapies aim to help you consciously reduce your anxiety level.

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Well, I'm not sure about this, as I haven't taken any video, but I think it's ok to look mostly at someplace near a person, or maybe, say, at their chin, with occasional brief eye contact. But it's not really something I think about when talking to someone. I think you have to be able to scan their facial expressions, at the least. I think often it's comfortable to look a bit lower than the chin, assuming there's not some noticable development there that makes things awkward.

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Guest Vapourware

If it weren't instinct but entirely conscious choice than you wouldn't have a problem making eye contact, right? It sort of happens by itself, even though it's under your control. Like breathing.

Really? I would agree to a certain extent about certain cases where eye contact [or lack thereof] is involuntary.

What I meant before - perhaps I wasn't clear enough - was that I don't believe that eye contact is completely biologically-based. Why? There are emotions involved, as well as conscious choice in some cases. To give a personal example, I choose not to look at people's eyes. I could look into someone's eyes while they speak to me but I choose to avert my gaze.

If it was purely instinctual, then no matter what I would do, I couldn't not avert my gaze.

Am I making sense? ;)

@Ido: I agree with you in that it is normal to not constantly gaze into someone's face while talking, since constant staring is quite disconcerting and confronting. Doing the opposite by constantly averting your gaze, on the other hand...hmm...

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Did I misread you initially? I thought you said all actions such as eye contact [or lack thereof] is biological and instinctual. I'm saying it is not always so - and you have just repeated what I said?

Also, emotions are biological reponses too.

I have some issues with that statement as well. I don't disagree that emotions are caused by biology, but I don't think they are wholly biological. However, that is not relevant to this discussion so I shan't go on further ;)

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instinct:

1. An inborn pattern of behavior that is characteristic of a species and is often a response to specific environmental stimuli: the spawning instinct in salmon; altruistic instincts in social animals.

2. A powerful motivation or impulse.

3. An innate capability or aptitude: an instinct for tact and diplomacy.

All instincts can be overridden by conscious will.

lucky you.

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Look I'm no sure if people understand what I said. ANd now that we're getting all dictionaryish, I'll clarify further:

There are instincts (have sex, fear big growly sharp-toothed animals, seek friendship and social acceptance, etc), and there are autonomic responses (breathe, laugh when tickled, shift your gaze towards points of interest). All of these examples are under our consious control, meaning that if you *want to*, you can override the instinct -- you can be celibate, wrestle bears, become a hermit, hold your breath, refuse to laugh when tickled,  force your gaze. This was what I was referring to when I said instinct can be consciously overridden.

EYe contact is in fact well-studied and has many purposes, most of which are subconscious, by which I mean we DON'T CONSCIOUSLY think about "oh, I'm going to look down to show my submissiveness before this more dominant primate," or "if I lock gaze then I'll be more able to pick up on subtle shifts in expression that will convey shifting emotional nuances and allow me to better follow the non-verbal thread of communication thus faclitating bonding." These are not conscious, but they are occuring. And, again, we are capable of consciously overriding them.

Is there anything in what I just said that people are disagreeing with? If you disagree specifically with the stated *reasons* for eye contact or lack thereof, take it up with the animal behaviourists and psychologists; I'm just relaying what they've concluded, though personal experience backs up this stuff. If you've never gazed into a lover's eyes, made goo-goo talk with a baby, or felt intimidated by some thick-necked drunk staring at you in a sweaty nightclub, maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about.

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i do disagree with things in your post and am angry about your closing insinuations about what is normal. but i have no need to take it up with your experts as the ones i trust (along with, i would guess, many on this board) know that they can't be in everyone's shoes. i also have no need, time, or energy to cite your errors. i just want to point out that not everyone here is currently capable of what you are. please don't rub it in. aloha.

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Look I'm no sure if people understand what I said. ANd now that we're getting all dictionaryish, I'll clarify further:

There are instincts (have sex, fear big growly sharp-toothed animals, seek friendship and social acceptance, etc), and there are autonomic responses (breathe, laugh when tickled, shift your gaze towards points of interest). All of these examples are under our consious control, meaning that if you *want to*, you can override the instinct -- you can be celibate, wrestle bears, become a hermit, hold your breath, refuse to laugh when tickled,  force your gaze. This was what I was referring to when I said instinct can be consciously overridden.

EYe contact is in fact well-studied and has many purposes, most of which are subconscious, by which I mean we DON'T CONSCIOUSLY think about "oh, I'm going to look down to show my submissiveness before this more dominant primate," or "if I lock gaze then I'll be more able to pick up on subtle shifts in expression that will convey shifting emotional nuances and allow me to better follow the non-verbal thread of communication thus faclitating bonding." These are not conscious, but they are occuring. And, again, we are capable of consciously overriding them.

Is there anything in what I just said that people are disagreeing with? If you disagree specifically with the stated *reasons* for eye contact or lack thereof, take it up with the animal behaviourists and psychologists; I'm just relaying what they've concluded, though personal experience backs up this stuff. If you've never gazed into a lover's eyes, made goo-goo talk with a baby, or felt intimidated by some thick-necked drunk staring at you in a sweaty nightclub, maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about.

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Guest Vapourware

Woah, people calm down! ;) Anyways:

@Sam56: Thank you for the link, it was quite informative.

@Jemini: Personally, I don't disagree that eye contact has a broad biological basis - however, to imply that eye contact primarily biological or instinct is, in my view, too simplistic.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of instinct and biological drives is that it differs very little between individuals. If this understanding is correct, then would it be logical to assume that there wouldn't be much difference between groups of people? However, differences exist between groups of people regarding eye contact, so how is that explained in instinctual and biological terms?

For instance: in some cultures, it is a mark of respect to look into people's eyes when speaking. In other cultures, it is a mark of respect to avert your gaze. 

Another concept of instincts [again, from my understanding] is that the behaviour is not informed by prior experiences. However, can we say for certain that eye contact [or lack thereof] is such?

Jemini, you mentioned earlier about hypervigilance. Now, would you say that hypervigilance in an individual is instinctual, or informed by prior experiences?

If you've never gazed into a lover's eyes, made goo-goo talk with a baby, or felt intimidated by some thick-necked drunk staring at you in a sweaty nightclub, maybe you have no idea what I'm talking about.

Well, that is an ad hominem. Whether any of us have done what you have listed is irrelevant to the discussion and neither does it invalidate [or conversely validate] anyone's comments.

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This is getting too complicated.

Eye contact as a sign of dominance/submission, within the context of such interactions, is not cultural, but is an instinct found in primates, including humans. Key point here -- it is in certain contexts. In contexts where dominance is not a prominent factor in the interaction, eye contact serves the different purpose of attunement. The reason this all differs so much from person to person is that we have different experiences that change our position (or perception of our position) in the dominance heirarchy. So if you feel like the lowest person on the totem pole, you may avert your eyes in contexts where you perceive a challenge of dominance. Likewise different cultures differ as to when certain contexts are relevant. What is simple social interaction in one culture may be loaded with class/caste meaning in another, so dominance may have more or less significance. Traditionally Japanese women would bow in deference to their husbands -- a much more submissive behavior than in modern Western male/female interactions, in which a greater degree of equality has been adopted as the cultural norm. Still, when you find yourself averting your eyes from someone else's, it is at some level an act of submission. And when you feel very confident and unthreatened by someone who you feel is clearly beneath you, even if only for that moment, you typically will stare them right in the eyes.

Another way of looking at this that unifies the dominance/attunement aspects is that there are two possibilities for eye contact. One person looks at the other's eyes but the other averts, which is a sign for the one being dominant over the other (in that interaction); or both people make eye contact, which is a sign that they are peers or evenly matched. Eye contact is an essential part of the whole social heirarchy because of these cues as to social roles.

Hypervigilance is not an instinct. It is in fact an over-response of instinctual and autonomic behaviors, typically due to past experience such as trauma or emotionally chaotic or invalidating circumstances that effectively set the trigger for alertness/anxiety too ... I don't know what adjective ... too tight? The evolved and appropriate version of hypervigilence which is autonomic/instinct is the so-called fight-or-flight response, which is supposed to kick in when we are threatened. The hypervigilant person's system is telling them that they are threatened all the time, which can be debilitating, and is connected to social phobia and various types of anxiety disorders.

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I cant seem to look into peoples eyes when talking to them.

I look down at the floor or at the thing I am fiddling with hands (clothes edges or leaf off nearby tree).

I am afraid that if they look into my eyes they can see what I am really thinking and feeling, and I dont want people to know that.

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    cool subject    visual overload  we have so much dreck to look at bombarding us that it seems like people are more afraid of looking in each others eyes.If you do it to someone that doesn't have it done to them much they think you are coming on to them or being too intense.

you humans are wierd.

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