We're told eye contact is essential for social skills, for nailing a presentation and for exuding confidence as a leader, especially in western cultures. But it's hard to deny there is something strangely disconcerting about it. What is it about eye contact that makes it so unnerving?

It's all about attention.

Attention is an expensive commodity. In our urban, social world, everything and everyone is always vying for attention.

Your eyes act as a spotlight for your attention. You direct your gaze to what attracts your attention and you keep it there if it holds your attention. By looking at something, you're telling the world what's on your mind.

When someone looks directly at you, you're on their mind.

Your self-worth grows if someone gazes into your eyes in a positive context -- if they're smiling, sharing common ideas and asking you pleasant questions -- because you're out-competing everyone else for attention. At that moment, you're the only one who's "worthy" of attention.

Watch your reflection in the mirror.

When you are interacting with someone face-to-face, you subconsciously pick up non-verbal cues to try to guess what's on their mind. They're probably looking at what they're thinking about.

Since their gaze tells you what they're thinking about, you try to follow their gaze. If they look up at the ceiling, you look at it too. If they look over at the next table, so do you. As you follow their gaze, you place your attention on whatever it is they are looking at.

But what happens when they look at you? Do you look at you too? Do you place your own attention on yourself?

Look into your own eyes.

The answer seems to be yes. Direct eye contact increases self-awareness - in a similar way to when you look at your own reflection in a mirror.

Self-awareness comes in different flavors - you might focus on how others see you, or you might focus inwards, and become more introspective or more interoceptive (sensitive to things like your heartbeat). Direct eye contact also makes you remember things that have a personal connection to you.

According to a recent paper, direct eye contact increases self-referential processing.

Focus on yourself.

Self-referential processing is a mental state where you interpret everything going on around you with an exaggerated focus on yourself.

For instance, in one study, a group of university students were told to guess translations for underlined pronouns in sentences in a language they did not understand. Those who did the task immediately after having eye contact used many more first person singular pronouns like "I" and "me" than those who did not have eye contact beforehand. (Interestingly, this did not work if the students held eye contact with a video of faces, rather than with real people).

This can work either in your favor, or against it, depending on whether your authentic self is in alignment with what is being said.

What this means for you.

  • Authenticity: Direct eye contact opens a door to the person inside you, without your permission. The less authentic you are -- and the more you worry about being judged, the more the more uncomfortable this feels. If you overcome this by over-compensating, you could lose trust. Instead, work on being comfortable with authenticity and on building self-esteem.
  • Alignment: Direct eye contact backfires if you disagree with -- or feel threatened by -- what is being said on a personal or core level. Here, the door that opens up to your authentic self, also accesses your core values and beliefs. If these clash with what's being said, eye contact can hinder -- not help -- persuasion.
  • Empathy: Direct eye contact makes the other person relate what you are saying to themselves, without their conscious knowledge. Empathy is a powerful tool in persuasion. Sincere and relaxed, direct eye contact coupled with some well-chosen words will help you to latch onto your audience's empathy -- and win them over, especially if they're already halfway there.