A study published in October in the journal Cognition found that eye contact can pose challenges for fulfilling other tasks, such as speaking, because it requires so much of our cognitive functioning.
The study involved 26 participants playing a word association game. Each participant had to look at a face on a screen and respond to the sound of a specific noun by saying a verb that may be associated with it (the noun could be "oatmeal," for instance, and the participants could say a verb such as "eat" or "stir"). The researchers included nouns with easily generated associations like "milk," which is often associated with drinking, Christian Jarrett noted in a British Psychological Society Research Digest post published in November. These easily generated associations are classified as low-retrieval demands. The nouns with more challenging associations are called high-retrieval demands.
The researchers, Jarret wrote, found participants were "much slower at the verb generation task when making eye contact with the face on-screen, as opposed to when the face’s gaze was averted, but only in the most difficult version of the verb generation task, when retrieval and selection demands were high."
In other words, participants faced challenges generating verb associations when someone was making eye contact with them.
"[The researchers said their] results are consistent with the idea that eye contact drains our more general cognitive resources – the kind that we need to draw on when some other task, such as speaking, becomes too difficult to be handled by domain-specific resources," Jarrett wrote. "That’s why the more complicated the story you’re telling (or excuse you’re making), the more likely you are to need to break off eye contact."
Breaking eye contact isn't necessarily a bad move, though. Previous research shows this can make people more comfortable in face-to-face interactions.
A July 2016 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science found that three seconds is the perfect amount of time to hold eye contact with someone. Eye contact lasting less than a second or more than nine seconds brought discomfort to the people in that study.
"[T]he amount of time we are looked at can affect our interpretation of another person's behavior," the authors wrote. "Participants receiving longer gazes interpret an observer as having a more favorable opinion of them, and longer gazes are preferred to frequent and short glances, yet at the same time overlong gazes or overly short gazes can be discomforting.The question therefore is what constitutes a comfortable duration of mutual gaze along this ‘too short’/‘too long’ continuum?"
Simultaneously trying to make eye contact and speak profoundly isn't always easy, so briefly looking away could help you collect your thoughts and avoid creeping out the other person.
[H/T Science of Us]