Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas, a French poet and diplomat, wrote in his work Divine Weeks and Works, that the eyes are the “windows of the soul.”  According to new research, he may have been right… at least partially.

Non-verbal communication, including tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, body language and posture, and, of course, eye contact accounts for 65% of all communication, according to a 2009 review published in Image and Vision Computing.  Eye contact holds a special place in the non-verbal category, though, and is generally associated with honesty and candor. In a 2006 study, nonverbal behavior affected perceptions about the truthfulness of a message AND the truthfulness of a message affected how much eye contact a messenger gave.  Thus, a person’s nonverbal behavior, including how much eye contact they give, affects whether they are perceived as honest or dishonest.

The Dialectical Gaze

Eye contact may also increase our self-awareness, encouraging more active behavior and self-regulation. Dr. Matias Baltazar of Université de Vincennes and his co-researchers completed a study in October 2014 in which 32 participants were wired to a skin conductance machine in order to record the sweatiness of their fingers and, therefore, measure, objectively, their emotional reactions. Once wired, the participants observed a series of positive and negative images on a computer screen. Either a fixation cross or a photograph of a man or woman’s face appeared before each image.  In the photos, the faces either looked directly at the participants to simulate eye contact or averted their gaze. Then, after each they rated the intensity of their emotional reaction.

Overall, the participants’ accuracy in judging their own physiological reactions—as compared to the results from the conductance machine— improved following a photograph of a stranger making eye contact. The participants’  “self-awareness becomes more acute when one is subjected to another’s gaze” writes the authors. Baltazar and his team suggest their work could lead to new therapies for people with conditions that seem to interrupt self-awareness or sensitivity to particular stimuli, such as anorexia nervosa or severe depression.

Demonstrating an application of the increased self-awareness that eye contact can generate, posters of staring eyes were placed above bicycle racks in three locations at Newcastle University in a two-year experiment, and theft was reduced by 62%.

Eye contact can also signal hierarchy as people who are high-status tend to look longer at people they’re talking to compared with others, states a 2009 research review in Image and Vision Computing. According to the research,high-status people receive more visual attention during a conversation.   Conversely, according to another study published in 2010 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior those who are less well-regarded receive less eye contact from influential participants in meetings.

Cultural Differences to our Gazes

However, any discussion of human behavior must consider the differences that exist across cultures. In many Eastern and some Caribbean cultures, meeting another’s eyes can be perceived as rude or aggressive.  In a 2013 study published in PLOS ONE, Asians were more likely than Westerners to regard a person who makes eye contact as angry or unapproachable. The study also suggested that gaze direction (direct vs. averted) could influence perceptions about another person’s disposition. These results suggest that cultural differences in eye contact behavior emerge from differential display rules and cultural norms.

Similarly, in a study published in the Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, the “eye gaze displays of Canadian, Trinidadian, and Japanese participants” were recorded as they answered questions for which they either knew or had to think about the answers. When they knew the answers, Trinidadians maintained the most eye contact while Japanese maintained the least. When contemplating the answers to questions, Canadians and Trinidadians looked up, and Japanese looked down. The study, further suggests that the amount of eye contact in a conversation is at least in part culturally determined.

So, de Salluste was right— the eyes are windows of the soul.  However, culture and norms surrounding eye contact influence how eyes are opened or raised and how they communicate to others.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Roxanne Bauer is a consultant to the World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Operational Communications department (ECROC).

Image: A woman with a baby on her back looks on at an informal settlement in the capital Luanda, August 30, 2012. REUTERS.