Why It's Hard To Make Eye Contact When Talking

by Megan Grant

Many times, when I'm speaking to someone and having to really think about the words coming out of my mouth, my eyes wander. I've often heard that wavering eye contact is a sign of lying — but if you, too, have ever wondered why you can't make eye contact when talking even when you're absolutely telling the truth, science has provided quite a compelling answer: According to a new study, trying to make eye contact actually disrupts your thinking.

A study recently published in the journal Cognition and authored by Shogo Kajimura and Michio Naumra from the University of Kyoto found that trying to maintain eye contact makes it harder to focus on your own speaking. In other words, you're likely to speak more thoughtfully when you look away, rather than when you lock eyes with someone. In order to figure the whole thing out, the authors brought in 26 people to do a word-matching game which involved participants giving a verb that corresponded to a noun they were given — for example, if the participants heard "milk," they might respond, "drink." The difficulty of the word matching varied; while the milk-drink match was what they referred to as low retrieval and selection demand, other nouns (like "list") were high. (You can make a list, check off a list, etc.) What's more, while they played this game, the participants had to watch a face on a screen in front of them: Sometimes, the face was staring ahead, while other times, it was looking to the side.

The results showed that when the word matching was high retrieval and demand, the participants took longer to complete it when they had to make eye contact — demonstrating that the harder we have to think, the better it might be to let our eyes wander. So, if you're speaking to someone and they break eye contact, yes, they could be fibbing... or they might just need to think about what they say before they say it.

It's actually no surprise that there's more behind eye contact than you might think. In fact, eye contact is so deeply engrained in our behavior that it actually goes back to our reactions as infants: A 2002 study out of MIT learned that infants were more likely to try to follow an adult's eyes as opposed to just their head movements. It's something we're exercising before old enough to even understand it.

While the results of this study are fascinating, this isn't where the conversation ends. There are indeed other factors that contribute to how much or how little eye contact we keep during interactions. Reduced eye contact, for example, can be the result of shame, embarrassment, sadness, shyness, or social anxiety. On the other hand, we might increase eye contact when we're talking to someone we like or admire, or someone who has more power than we do.

This helps explain why more intimate conversations often mean more eye contact; and it could also be the reason we avoid eye contact in elevators and subways.

The effects of eye contact don't end with the conversation, either. One study found that eye contact makes your words more memorable: Having just 30 percent of a conversation with eye contact meant a substantial increase in what participants remembered.

Further research reveals another intriguing point: We can use eye contact to our benefit, and the benefit of those around us. While people tend to overcompensate with eye contact when they're lying (and thus make more eye contact than people telling the truth), eye contact can make people more honest, studies have found. A different study revealed yet another benefit of eye contact: It can help make people more self-aware, helping them tune in to their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Going back to what I earlier said about more intimate conversations often meaning more eye contact — studies have shown that the opposite is also true: You can sometimes increase attraction by maintaining eye contact. (Use this knowledge wisely!)

While these studies sometimes come up with completely conflicting results (like showing that people are better able to keep eye contact when they're telling the truth — but also, liars maintain more eye contact), there is one undeniable takeaway: Eye contact is more than something we do to be polite.

Images: Bustle; Giphy (3)