The renowned Spanish magician and magic theorist Juan Tamariz wrote in his classic book “The Five Points in Magic” that, to make an audience feel seen, a performer must extend “imaginary threads from [the performer’s] eyes to the spectators,” taking care to not break them during the performance. If a thread to one or more spectators should nevertheless break, the performer must “turn directly toward him or them and talk to the person or persons” until the threads are reconnected.  

A new study, published earlier this month in the journal Perception, suggests that for spectators to feel that they have eye-to-eye contact with the person onstage, the latter needs not extend imaginary threads from his or her eyes to the eyes of the audience. In fact, we perceive direct eye contact from other people not only when they look us in the eye, but also when they look at any other part of our face.

Shane Rogers, Oliver Guidetti, and their collaborators at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, set out to determine whether interlocutors experience an ‘eye contact illusion’ during natural conversation, and if so, how strong the misperception might be. To find out, they conducted two eye-tracking studies:

In the first experiment, Guidetti engaged in one on one ‘getting acquainted’ conversations with 46 students, with both Guidetti and the student wearing eye-tracking glasses. In one half of the 4-minute conversations, Guidetti looked at the student’s eyes most of the time, and in the other half of the conversations, he looked at the student’s mouth most of the time. The data showed that, whereas mutual face gazing was comparable in the two participant groups, mutual eye contact was much lower in the group where Guidetti looked at people’s mouths rather than at their eyes. This result was as expected, and it confirmed that Guidetti had allocated his own gaze as intended. Once the conversation was over, students rated how much eye contact they believed Guidetti had tried to make, and how much they had enjoyed the conversation. Both subject groups produced equivalent ratings in each measure, indicating that our perception of eye contact during conversation has more to do with mutual face gazing than with actual eye contact.

In the second experiment, 36 pairs of students (all wearing eye-tracking goggles) participated in an ‘eye gaze guessing game,’ where participants alternated the roles of gazer and guesser for 30 experimental trials. In each trial, the gazer looked for about 2 seconds at one of five locations on the guesser’s face: eyes, mouth, nose, forehead, or either ear. Then, the guesser tried to guess the location the gazer had just looked at. The guessers’ accuracy was above chance level, suggesting that people do possess some ability to figure out the location of another person’s gaze when actively watching out for it. However, participants were biased towards guessing ‘eyes’ when unsure.

Based on the combined findings from both experiments, the researchers concluded that, unless people are specifically attending to gaze location, they are not very sensitive to the exact focus of their partner’s gaze upon their face during the course of natural conversation.

The bad news is, your perception of soul-to-soul eye contact with your romantic partner may be all in your head (your soulmate could be looking at your mouth, or even your ear, as they declare their everlasting love). But the good news is, if the act of looking at other people’s eyes makes you anxious, or if you dread speaking in front of an audience, you don’t need to sweat the small stuff. Just look in the general direction of people’s faces and it’ll feel to them like meaningful eye contact.