Most of us have become familiar with video conferencing as a bridge to our colleagues and clients.
Although platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are a boost to productivity in many ways, we’re all aware that there are limitations which devalue the experience: video calls are tiring, we can feel isolated and often feel we haven’t connected with people in the way we wanted.
Video calls are some distance behind face-to-face interactions, particularly when there’s more than two of you participating.
Speaking to the Head of Distribution in an Asset Management company last week I was struck again by how much we all still struggle with making appropriate eye contact on video calls. Few people we encounter are accomplished at it.
What are the psychological effects of human eye contact and how should presenters think about them in “laptop world”?
Eye contact with another human is such a cue-laden experience that it’s one of the highest priority skills evolution has taught us. We learn as infants that what we see in the eyes of others is our primary guide to their intent.
The duration or intensity of a gaze do not always signal positivity and we rely heavily on peripheral information including paralanguage (hand gestures and facial expressions) and kinesics (body language) for further cues. If our eyes are optimised for assessing the intentions of others it’s likely that we’re also programmed to put some brain power into processing what we’re seeing.
In a 2016, researchers at Kyoto University confirmed their hypothesis that humans used a similar area of the brain for both interpreting visual signals and for complex cognitive (especially verbal) processing. Because both of these functions share the same domain, our coping mechanism is to switch between prioritising one over the other.
In other words when we’re thinking deeply we may break eye contact to allow ourselves to think.
How though, do we reconcile this knowledge with our intuition that looking away from our counterpart could signal a lack of conviction, or even that we’re not telling the truth?
We might try to compensate by giving intense, high-conviction eye contact – but we know that liars will often use excessive eye contact to try to convince their audience to believe them.
Recognising this, we could opt to avoid all but the most necessary eye contact. Could this be the way forward?
Not according to a team of international researchers who in 2012 published a paper that found: “withholding eye contact can signal exclusion. One form this signal can take relates to the German expression ‘wie Luft behandeln’ which literally means ‘to be looked at as through air’. This was particularly true if a stranger looks our way and then avoids eye contact”, arguably a high-probability event in a large virtual meeting with potential or new clients.
Occasional or general audience scanning, it seems, doesn’t solve our dilemma, either. With very limited scope to use peripheral vision in the virtual world our cues are limited to mutual eye contact.
Summarising so far then: we know that eye contact is a fundamental element of human interaction, allowing us to assess others. But mutual eye contact is such an intense activity that we might need to break it when we’re thinking or multi-tasking, and that can seem to diminish our credibility.
Going to either extreme of eye contact (all the time or hardly at all) are not viable without appearing strange to the point of psychopathic.
What else, then, does research tell us?
- First, that when we lock eyes with another person it increases our self-consciousness – knowing that we’re the focus draws our attention to how we’re feeling. (This sense must be greater on a video call if we’re also looking at our own image on the screen).
- Second, that pupil dilation in the recipient (an automatic and unconscious sign of interest) is correlated with their preferred duration of gaze. Nicola Binetti’s 2016 research was conducted on 498 visitors to the Science Museum in London to discover what constituted “comfortable” eye contact. He found that the preferred duration for receiving a gaze is around three seconds, and this applies across a wide range of age, personality type and gender.
It’s almost impossible to observe pupil changes on a laptop screen so we don’t have that input. Also, we’re hard wired to look at faces but remote eye contact requires us to look directly through the camera lens – which feels even stranger if your counterparties aren’t visible.
Perhaps, before we throw up our hands in despair, we should just turn off the camera entirely? Isn’t it easier if it’s just our voices on the call? Be very wary of taking this route, though, particularly if the conversation is likely to be contentious or highly charged.
A 2011 University of Haifa paper examined the impact of factors which might separate online counterparts.
The authors were interested to see which of three variable changes (anonymity/non-anonymity, visible/invisible, eye contact /lack of eye contact) made the greatest negative difference to what they called the “toxic online disinhibition effect” – the disintegration into rudeness and abuse.
Their premise was that anonymity or invisibility would be the most likely disinhibitors: the results might surprise you.
“The results suggested that of the three independent variables, lack of eye-contact was the chief contributor to the negative effects of online disinhibition” (my italics). “…it appears that previous studies might have defined the concept of anonymity too broadly by not addressing other online communication factors, especially lack of eye-contact, that impact disinhibition.”
No matter how uncomfortable or emotional you might expect an interaction to be, this research suggests even a known counterparty is more likely to become negative if there’s no eye contact.
Eye contact is a primary signal of human connectivity. Instincts that have developed through human evolution cannot yet give us sufficient guidance for meaningful interactions with very new technology. This article shows that while there are no secrets there are surprises, and science can help us understand how it works. Our challenge is to take this knowledge and become proficient communicators in the new remote working environment.
Templar Advisors helps executives and teams communicate in their critical interactions: winning pitches, advising customer and clients and persuading audiences and colleagues.
Russell Ross-Smith is a Director at Templar. He has advised FTSE 100 CEOs, Chairmen and Cabinet level politicians (UK and US administrations) on board presence and keynote speeches and coaches management teams preparing for corporate events in the public and private sectors. He develops the communication skills of Investment Bankers, Asset Managers and Insurance Brokers as well as high performers in industry and the professional services, helping them to have more effective interactions with colleagues and clients.