Proper eye contact gets a lot of attention. It's supposedly the key to being a great speaker, to executive presence, and to how to own a room. It's worried over by those on job interviews, on dates, and negotiating. People who hold eye contact too long are seen as aggressive, and people who hold eye contact too short, as shifty. If you get it wrong, you can give off more than just signals of social awkwardness. Autism and schizophrenia are both partially diagnosed by eye contact abnormalities.
Normal eye contact, revealed
So what is normal? Just this week, Royal Open Science published the first study of what "normal" eye contact looks like. The researchers tapped just under 500 volunteers who were confronted by this video:
The subjects' pupil dilation was measured. So was the moment when they glanced away. They each took a personality inventory to try to determine basic personality characteristics, too--in case, for example, very social people simply liked longer eye contact. The research revealed that the average optimal eye contact is 3.3 seconds.
The normal range was broad though--over a half second either way, depending on the volunteer. The study authors said personality and other traits didn't predict at all, writing, "preferred period of gaze duration is not dependent on fundamental characteristics such as gender, personality traits or attractiveness."
David Schultz, writing for Science, commented, "The longer their preferred gaze, the faster their pupils expanded. The differences are so subtle, though, that they can only be seen with the eye-tracking software--making any attempts to game the system likely to end up awkward rather than informative."
The right way to make eye contact
So if you're looking someone in the eyes, try counting to three. That's the zone most people are comfortable with. Still, if you are someone whose preferred gaze length is at one end of the spectrum, and your conversation partner's is at the other, you're a second apart. There's not much you can do about rewiring your habits but to be aware of them and know "normal" eye contact, like so many things, has individual variability.