Communication & Eye Contact


I love the Pelican Originals, which were published by Penguin from the ’30s to the ’80’s. I’ve got myself a little collection that I’m building; I love the blue spines and the cover art, especially of the ’60’s ones, and now when you buy them in second hand book shops they have that ‘browned’ look of old books. Love it! But… that wasn’t what I came here to tell you about…..

We talk a lot in social work about communication. We understand the importance of words but also the importance of non verbal communication. And one of the important factors we discuss is eye contact. So, you know how important eye contact is in demonstrating that you are there with the person, and how it goes some way towards showing empathy. Well, there are some interesting things that sit behind all of that.

I’ve been reading (some of) The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour by Michael Argyle (1967), a Pelican Original! And he tells us some interesting things. He says that there is evidence that as early as four weeks old babies show more interest in the human face than in other objects. He feels that this fascination with the face is an innate reaction and further that in research by Coss (1965) it was found that patterns resembling eyes produce a greater emotional response from adults than other similar patterns (pg. 26,27). So, eye contact is important to us from an early age and  Argyle comments that, for babies, following with the eyes is the equivalent to physical (i.e. following by walking) following. A visual dependence for eye contact is formed.

When talking about eye movements (pg. 44) he particularly observes that eye movements play an important part in maintaining the flow of conversation. The speaker looks up to gain feedback (is the other person interested, attentive) and will make eye contact for longer to signal that it is time for the other person to speak. Eye contact, he says, increases the sense of intimacy.

So, he suggests there are different elements to eye contact (pg. 84-93). There is looking as seeking information, and there is looking as a signal or social technique (e.g. to initiate a reaction, to show emotion). Also, there is a motivational basis to looking. Looking may be rewarded with information, a smile maybe, affirmation that we are being listened to and valued. As he said, this basic motivation to seek such responses may well go back to being a baby. He states that being looked at is emotionally rewarding. In tests on rhesus monkeys brain stem activity increases when they are looked at by humans, he says. He points out, however, that long gazes can feel uncomfortable, even threatening, suggesting that if eye contact starts to feel like ‘being observed’ it can disturbing.


“The Psychology of Interpersonal Behaviour”, by Michael Argyle, (1967 – the year I was born! – I know hard to believe!) is a Pelican Original, published by Penguin Books.

[Stephen Mordue]

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