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Eye contact is an event in which two people or animals look at each other's eyes at the same time. It is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. Frequency and interpretation of eye contact vary between cultures and species. The study of eye contact is sometimes known as oculesics.
Social meanings of eye contact
Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information; people, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other's eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.
In some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, eye contact can provoke misunderstandings between people of different nationalities. Keeping direct eye contact with a work supervisor or elderly people leads them to assume one is being aggressive and rude — the opposite reaction of most Western societies.
Eye contact is also an important element in flirting, where it may serve to establish and gauge the other's interest in some situations.
The effectiveness of eye contact
Parent/child eye contact
A 1985 study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggested that "3-month-old infants are comparatively insensitive to being the object of another's visual regard". A 1996 Canadian study with 3 to 6 month old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed. A recent British study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that face recognition by infants was facilitated by direct gaze. Other recent research has confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.
A person's direction of gaze may indicate to others where his or her attention lies.
In the Islamic faith, Muslims often lower their gaze and try not to focus on the opposite sex's faces and eyes after the initial first eye contact, other than their legitimate partners or family members, in order to avoid potential unwanted desires. Lustful glances to those of the opposite sex, young or adult, are also prohibited. This means that eye contact between any man and woman is allowed only for a second or two. This is a must in most Islamic schools, with some exceptions depending on the case, like when teaching, testifying, or looking at a girl for marriage. If allowed, it is only allowed under the general rule: "No-Desire", clean eye-contact. Otherwise, it is not allowed, and considered "adultery of the eyes".
In many cultures it is respectful to not look the dominant person in the eye, but in Western culture this can be interpreted as being "shifty-eyed", and the person judged badly because "he wouldn't look me in the eye".
Eye aversion and mental processing
A study by University of Stirling psychologists concluded that children who avoid eye contact while considering their responses to questions had higher rates of correct answers than children who maintained eye contact. One researcher theorized that looking at human faces requires a lot of mental processing, which detracts from the cognitive task at hand. Researchers also noted that a blank stare indicated a lack of understanding.
Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon was quoted as having said,
"Looking at faces is quite mentally demanding. We get useful information from the face when listening to someone, but human faces are very stimulating and all this takes processing. So when we are trying to concentrate and process something else that's mentally demanding, it's unhelpful to look at faces."
Difficulty with eye contact
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device called the Interrotron which allowed his interview subjects to make direct eye contact with Morris while simultaneously looking directly into the filming camera. It allows the film's viewers to maintain eye contact with the people in Morris' films, giving what some describe as a more intimate acquaintance with them.
Patterns of eye contact between non-human mammals and between humans and other mammals is also well documented.
Animals of many species, including dogs, often perceive eye contact as a threat. Many programs to prevent dog bites recommend avoiding direct eye contact with an unknown dog. According to a report in The New Zealand Medical Journal, young children may be more likely to fall victim to dog attacks because they maintain eye contact out of curiosity or a belief, perhaps learned, that eye contact will subdue the animal.
In the 1990s, black bears returned to Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park after a twenty-year absence. Park officials recommend that visitors avoid direct eye contact if a bear stands on its hind legs. Chimpanzees use eye contact to signal aggression in hostile encounters, and staring at them in a zoo can induce agitated behavior.
- Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices
- Interpersonal communication
- "Eye contact". Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Retrieved May 14, 2006.
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- Al-Munajjid, Sheikh Muhammad Saleh (14/March/2004). "Twenty Tips for Lowering the Gaze". Retrieved March, 31, 2006.
- A Group of Islamic Researchers (10/July/2004). "Lowering the Gaze: Summer Combat!". Retrieved March, 31, 2006.
- The concept of "adultery of the eyes" comes from a well known hadith: "Narrated Ibn 'Abbas: 'I have not seen a thing resembling lamam (minor sins) than what Abu Huraira narrated from the Prophet who said 'Allah has written for Adam's son his share of adultery which he commits inevitably. The adultery of the eyes is the sight (to gaze at a forbidden thing), the adultery of the tongue is the talk, and the inner self wishes and desires and the private parts testify all this or deny it.' " (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 74, Number 260visited 24/1/2009). As to what is considered "to gaze at a forbidden thing", reference is made to the Quran "Tell the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make far greater purity for them; And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And tell the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty." (Quran 24:30-31)
- Adapting to British culture - Mehta and Kathane 328 (7454): 273 - BMJ Career Focus
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4602178.stm BBC News (citing research published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology)
- http://www.birthpsychology.com/primalhealth/primal17.html Primal Health]
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