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  Examining the Interpretation of Eye Contact in a University Setting


            The present experiment examined the effects of eye contact and reciprocation in a social setting between an experimenter and a targeted subject of the opposite sex.  The present experiment also studied subjects’ interpretations of the eye contact.  One-hundred-and-fifty individuals were targeted as subjects at different locations on the University of North Carolina at Wilmington campus.  Forty-six individuals agreed to participate.  A confederate, who was engaged in natural activity, attempted to make eye contact with the target subjects and receive reciprocated eye contact.  Another member of the research group approached the subject after reciprocated eye contact was established and asked them if they could identify someone making eye contact with them.  If the subject said ‘yes’ they could identify someone making eye contact with them and they agreed to participate in the study, they were asked to fill out a short survey about themselves.  Results were based on an analysis of the data collected from the surveys.  Few significant results were found.  Males were more likely than females to interpret eye contact as an attraction or in relation to their appearance.


Examining the Interpretation of Eye Contact in a University Setting


            The initial stages of romantic attraction develop from a number of contributing factors.  Many believe that physical appearance is the first step in the development of a romantic attraction.  According to psychologist Pamela C. Regan, men and women are most attracted to romantic partners who possess high levels of sex appeal, which primarily consists of an attractive physical appearance (Regan, 2004).  This theory is also evident in a study conducted by Maner, Gailliot, and Rouby which emphasized how “strongly, quickly, and automatically we are attuned to attractive people” (Maner, Gailliot and Rouby, 2007).  They found that participants in the study, which included both males and females, fixated on highly attractive people in the first half second of seeing them.

            If attractiveness promotes romantic attraction and eye contact, then how do individuals interpret the eye contact?  A study by Farris, Treat, Viken & McFall in 2008, found that men’s interpretation of women’s behavior, initiation of eye contact in particular, is associated with increased estimates of women’s sexual desire.  Therefore, a female may politely smile and make eye contact with a male, but the male is very likely to misinterpret the eye contact as the female’s sexual desire towards the male. 

            A study by Campbell (1999) used the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to score personalities of 102 undergraduate students.  The subjects were then ask to list their five most important attributes in a romantic partner, such as “perfect,” “dependent,” and “respectful.”  Campbell (1999) found that subjects who scored high on the NPI were more likely to list “attraction” and similar words as the most important attributes in a romantic partner.  This may not strike as unusual, according to Maner’s findings that indicate all individuals are more attuned to attractive people (Maner, Galliot, & Rouby, 2007).  What is much more profound is that subjects who scored highly on the NPI scale were also less likely to list words of honesty or values, such as “caring,” “moral,” or “interested in family life.”  This indicates that narcissistic individuals put much less value on the importance of principles and much more value on the importance of physical appearance.  Even more interestingly, Campbell (1999) found that narcissistic people are more likely to seek eye contact and romantic attraction as a strategy for enhancing self esteem. 

            Other individuals may not have an opportunity to interpret eye contact because they avoid it at all costs.  A study by Gamer and Hecht (2007) examined the processing of mutual gaze in social interactions. Mutual gaze was characterized as when an observer looks at or in the direction of the eyes of another person (Gamer and Hecht, 2007, p. 715).  Using objective measures provided by an eye tracker, the experimenters studied the reciprocation of gaze in subjects suffering from social phobia.  Not only did the subjects avoid eye contact, they avoided scanning any region of a gazer’s face, especially the eye region.

            The purpose of the present study was to examine the behavior of subjects receiving eye contact from confederates.  A survey was used as a tool for measuring the subject’s interpretation of the eye contact, such as familiarity, friendliness and attraction.  The survey also assisted in discovering relevant background information about the subject, such as relationship status and satisfaction, social anxiety and attractiveness. 




            One-hundred-and-fifty college aged individuals (43 males and 107 females) were potential targets as subjects.  Of the original sample, 46 individuals (15 males and 31 females) participated in this study.  The average age of the participant was 21.1 years (SD = 5.5).  All participants were recruited from different locations on the University of North Carolina at Wilmington campus.   These locations included a variety of academic buildings and eating establishments, a coffee shop, a library, and campus common grounds.


            The experimenter used a survey to evaluate the subject after eye contact was established between the subject and the confederate.  The subject was asked by the experimenter if they would fill out the survey after they agreed that they had, in deed, made eye contact with the confederate.  The subject was informed that the survey would remain completely anonymous.  The twenty questions asked were as follows:

1)    Did you notice somebody looking at you just now?

2)    Can you point them out?

2a)  In all honesty, before you knew this was a study, can you tell me why you thought that person was looking at you?


3)    Age:

4)    Gender:

5)    Relationship Status:

Single    Casually Dating    In a Relationship    Engage    Married    Recently Split

6)    Approximately how long is your current relationship?


7)    Can you rate your current relationship satisfaction?

          Bad                   Okay             Good                Great          Outstanding

8)    How often do you experience social anxiety?

            1                        2                      3                      4                      5

Very Infrequently                        Occasionally                              Frequently


9)    How intensely does social affect you?


            1                        2                      3                      4                      5

     Not at all                             Moderately Inhibiting              Intensely Inhibiting 


10) Humility aside, how would you rate yourself on attractiveness?


            1                        2                      3                      4                      5

Unattractive                             Moderately Attractive                Very Attractive


11)   One more time, in all honesty; out of the following choices circle those that apply to why you thought that person was looking at you?


  •       I thought I knew the person.
  •       I thought they were being friendly.
  •       I thought there might be something wrong with my appearance.
  •       I thought they might be attracted to me.
  •       I thought they might be judging me.



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