How you react to eye contact with another person is largely connected to your personality traits, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Tartu in Estonia and the University of Tampere in Finland.
“Our findings indicate that people do not only feel different when they are the center of attention but that their brain reactions also differ. For some, eye contact tunes the brain into a mode that increases the likelihood of initiating an interaction with other people. For others, the effect of eye contact may decrease this likelihood,” said Jari Hietanen, Ph.D., of University of Tampere.
Eye contact plays a crucial role in communication and is a powerful social signal. Looking someone in the eye automatically sends a signal to the other person that your attention is focused on him or her. If the other person happens to look back, you engage in eye contact, and a channel for interaction is opened.
Prior research suggests that eye contact triggers patterns of brain activity connected to “approach” motivation, while seeing another person with his or her gaze averted triggers brain activity associated with “avoidance” motivation. This suggests that another person’s attention is something important and desirable. And yet many people find that being the focus of someone’s gaze is uncomfortable, and some may even experience high levels of anxiety.
For the new study, the researchers set out to determine what lies underneath these individual psychological differences. Does personality modulate how a person reacts to eye contact? Can this difference be measured by brain activity?
“In order to test this hypothesis, we conducted an experiment where the participants’ electrical brain activity was recorded while they were looking at another person who was either making eye contact or had her gaze averted to the side. We had assessed the participants’ personality with a personality test in advance,” said researcher Helen Uusberg.
The findings revealed that personality does indeed help determine how one’s brain will react to attention from another person. In participants who scored low in neuroticism, situations of eye contact triggered brain activity linked to ‘approach’ motivation. Neuroticism is the personality dimension related to anxiety and self-consciousness.
However, if the participant scored high on neuroticism, the eye contact triggered more ‘avoidance’ brain activity patterns. The neurotic participants also wanted to look at the other person with a direct gaze for shorter periods of time and experienced more pleasant feelings when they saw a person with an averted gaze.
Source: Academy of Finland