Gleaning the timing of when a pleasant gaze become an uncomforatable glare
Not many interactions can feel intimate and romantic, awkward and uncomfortable, or even tense and threatening, the way eye contact can. Humans greatly value this form of social communication, nearly from birth, and yet too much can be an entirely negative signal. While the core framework for eye contact may be widely shared, the specific nuances to these shared moments seem to be very dependent on other social contexts.
In general, most people prefer to receive some degree of eye contact with people they interact with. Casual conversations depend on quick volleys of eye contact as participants switch from speaker to listener. People avoiding eye contact entirely are usually unsettling, and babies try to soak up as much eye contact as possible from their moms.
Too much of a good thing
As with any powerful tool, we do have limits though. Prolonged stares can cause discomfort, even when, as in the case of a recent study at Ohio State University, that stare is coming from a video recording of an actor. Despite the artificial scenario, test participants usually felt that 3.2 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact was as much as they could take. This timing varied a bit according to the vibe of the recorded actor— untrusted or threatening faces ran out the clock faster, while more sympathetic looks were reason to look longer. It may seem obvious that an angry stare likely conveys an attempt at dominance or danger, but quantifying this information helps pin down exactly what cues us to react different ways.
Attitude of the beholder
The participants themselves added variables to the mix as well. People who considered themselves to be warm and cooperative had an easier time holding longer gazes. It’s unclear what the cause and effect is here, as feeling socially comfortable may make gazing at another person easier, or it could be the reverse. Being able to gaze at another person may train you to be more socially comfortable. Either way, finding the right balance can be a powerful tool, especially since we’ve basically evolved to respond to it.
Source: Eye Contact: How Long Is Too Long? by Melinda Wenner Moyer, Scientific American Mind