What happens inside when someone looks at you? How long till you look away? Is it frightening, fabulous, or both?  When you look into another’s eyes, do you notice yourself judging them or simply being with them? 

Eye contact makes us more socially aware and empathetic. It also allows us to make sense of our relationships and social orientation. When we look in another’s eyes, over time we experience an echo in our own body of what the other is needing. This process is automatic, beneath awareness, and is considered an important component of empathy.

According to the communications-analytics company Quantified Impressions , adults make eye contact between 30% and 60% of the time in an average conversation. However, they follow up with saying people should be making eye contact 60% to 70% of the time to create a sense of emotional connection, according to its analysis of 3,000 people speaking to individuals and groups.

I often heard clients complain that their partner did not make enough eye contact, leaving them feeling lonely and disconnected. We all long to be understood, appreciated, and valued. So then, what is the impact on empathy when we decrease our amount of eye contact? There is research showing empathy has plummeted among college students.   In another study, cyber bullying decreased when the subjects could see the eyes of the person they might bully on the screen.

Eye contact stimulates our moral brain, which in turn promotes pro-social behavior. Empathy, like other emotions, is highly attuned to visual imagery – the more vivid the imagery, the more likely one is to be empathetic. This translates directly to pro-social behavior: noticable, easy to imagine, and similar victims lead to a greater empathetic response and more altruistic behavior. Meaning, immediate victims with visible needs induce greater empathic responses. (Schelling, 1968; Small & Lowenstein, 2003).

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine last year found that patients of doctors who made more eye contact  presented with overall better health. 

Eye contact is a really good surrogate for where attention is and the level of accord building in a relationship,” said Enid Montague, a professor of engineering and medicine at Northwestern, who used video recordings of 100 patient visits to a primary care clinic for her analysis. “We found eye contact leads to significantly better patient outcomes.

Konrath, Obrien, and Hsing’s research suggests that empathy is the key to maintaining and improving human society. This study suggests that with more Americans living alone than ever and the increased focus on the self, pushed by technology’s turn towards social media, isolation and increased self-focus have helped to diminish upcoming generations’ ability to empathize.

This is because social media puts pressure on the user to edit and correct their self-image to a state of perfection, disrupting the ability to form real, relationships. With impersonal communication like texts, posts and pictures, today’s youth have a limited capacity for real-time conversations, leading to diminished understanding of body language, facial expressions, and the overall read of others. Because they do not know how to form real relationships, their isolation increases. Social media then rewards the isolating behavior with “likes” and other forms of attention that act as a temporary, shallow balm to the user’s loneliness.

The problem with the inability to take others’ perspectives in when utilizing social media and technology is that it limits the scope of communication, or that your words can hurt, you can say something and not understand its impact.

Heirman and Walrave’s study on cyberbullying found that children and teenagers using social media like Facebook and Twitter not only felt that they had impunity because of anonymity, but also that they were unsure of the impact their words had. Subjects indicated that they thought their actions were only a joke, something funny to say or do, or else had simply not given thought to the impact it would have on the victim. Once again, the form of communication had cauterized away human reaction, so the aggressors could not put themselves in the victim’s place, and were uncertain of the impact of their words. 

This  “empathy deficit,” as President Obama has dubbed the current problem, is creating generations who cannot connect with and support each other. As Konrath points out:

Even though crime has decreased in the last decade over all, violence against the homeless have seen dramatic increases in the last ten years, hate crimes against Hispanics, immigrants, homosexuals, and transgender individuals have increased significantly. All of the victims of these crimes are the stigmatized, the marginalized, and defenseless groups.

Finally, we can and need to rethink social media itself. Microphones, cameras, and other human interface devices make it possible to connect on a more empathetic level from great distances. Incorporating those techniques into social media might, if Konrath, Heirman, and Cohen’s suspicions are correct, turn the tide on empathetically disconnected communication. 

Schelling, Thomas C. (1968). The Life You Save May Be Your Own,’’ in S. Chase, ed., Problems in public expenditure analysis. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, pp. 127 –62.

Small, D. A., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). Helping a victim or helping the victim: Altruism and identifiability. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 26(1), 5‐16.