In 1997, psychologist Arthur Aron conducted an experiment centred entirely around the development of intimacy. He had pairs of people sit opposite each other and discovered that there was one simple way to create a sizzling connection.
As writer Mandy Len Catron described it in a now infamous 2015 Modern Love column where she attempted to recreate the experiment: “A heterosexual man and woman enter the lab through separate doors. They sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The most tantalizing detail: Six months later, two participants were married. They invited the entire lab to the ceremony.”
When Catron attempted the same thing — the questions and the four minutes — she and her partner fell in love. A year later, Amnesty International also attempted to replicate the experiment, in a video called Look Beyond Borders, pegged to the refugee crisis. In it, refugees from Syria and Somalia sat opposite people from Belgium, Italy, Germany, Poland and the U.K., and their only task was to look into each other’s eyes.
“People from different continents who have literally never set eyes on each other before come away feeling an amazing connection,” said Draginja Nadażdin, director of Amnesty International Poland, adding, “Borders exist between countries, not people.”
Whatever the scenario, it’s certain Aron could never have predicted that the world would live out this very experiment on the daily, two years into a pandemic. In grocery aisles or on sidewalks, for most of us, social communication now relies more on eye contact than ever before.
The listener relies on facial cues to perceive emotion
Face masks hide facial expressions and can also muffle tone, hindering facial perception. This is significant because it’s long been believed, as researched by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in his 1971 book, Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, that, in an exchange, the listener relies seven per cent on the words said, 38 per cent on vocal elements and intonation, and 55 per cent on facial cues in order to perceive emotion. The numbers are often disputed, but the point is clear: we count on more than just what someone is saying in order to effectively communicate.
With this and Aron’s experiment in mind, does this mean we may very well be building a stronger effort at making and reading eye contact, strengthening a key muscle of communication?
“Probably so,” says David Lapakko, associate professor and director of forensics at Augsburg University.”We’re missing some useful facial cues and need to look at other aspects of the message more closely, both verbal and nonverbal. In my personal experience, at least in terms of facial cues, I think I’m focusing a bit more on the skin and muscles around the eyes — a genuine smile, for example, is revealed by those muscles; we don’t just smile with our mouths.”
While the research on this is relatively sparse, a recent study finding that children can detect a person’s emotional state even while they’re wearing masks made waves, sparking conversation on just how our communication styles are changing. It might be a relief to hear for those parents and educators worried wearing masks in school and outside could be hindering their development.
For the elderly and those living with disabilities, there may be greater cause for concern, particularly if they are already facing perception issues. It’s much more difficult to identify an individual by their eyes. In fact, according to a 2021 York University study, that ability is reduced by 15 per cent when we don a mask.
Masks can make us more attractive
There’s a surprising bonus to all of this, though: wearing masks can make us all more attractive as, rather grimly, the majority of our faces are covered and hidden from judgment. But also, as stated in a study called “Beauty and the Mask” by the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University College of Health, because eyes are often considered “the region that defines beauty.”
That’s long been the sentiment in other parts of the world, including South Asia and the Middle East, where some wear niqabs, or China and Japan, where mask-wearing has long been the norm due to pollution and after the 2002 SARS outbreak. It’s even become a style choice — with one Chinese designer even having created a “smog couture” line in 2014 — and a symbol of respect, with communication centred around the eyes.
In these terms at least, it’ll certainly take time for the West to adapt. Lapakko, for one, is skeptical that increased eye contact will lead to any major change in the way we connect with each other.
“I wouldn’t assume in any particular situation that ‘the majority of communication is nonverbal,’ at least in terms of the perceived meaning by the receiver,” he says. “If I say, ‘I hate your guts’ or ‘You are the love of my life,’ the dominant meaning is probably coming from the verbal message. Yes, the nonverbal message can be extremely important — at times more important than the words — but I don’t think it’s equivalent to the law of gravity.”
So, sure, humans likely won’t ever solely communicate through eyes — at least not in my lifetime, or yours. But it seems fair to say our reliance on eye contact (and body language) is growing, and the payoffs are considerable. As Arthur Aron found 25 years ago, that can be more than enough to build a profound intimacy. One can imagine, then, for a society that is spending far more than four minutes a day communicating through the eyes alone, deep connection is far from impossible.