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Eye Contact and Social Interaction

January 2012 - A study reported in Psychological Science looks at some of the small signals that seem to be important for social interaction.

Feeling 'connected' is known to be significant for personal well-being and happiness. In this study Eric D. Wesselmann of Purdue University and co-authors Florencia D. Cardoso of the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata in Argentina, Samantha Slater of Ohio University, and Kipling D. Williams of Purdue describe a study conducted to investigate just how small a cue can help someone feel connected. Acording to Wesselman:

"Some of my coauthors have found, for example, that people have reported that they felt bothered sometimes even when a stranger hasnít acknowledged them."

The authors designed an experiment to test that with the cooperation of people on campus at Purdue University. A research assistant walking along a busy path identified a subject, and either:

  1. met the personís eyes
  2. met the subject's eyes and smiled
  3. looked in the direction of the individualís eyes - but past, for example, an ear

Wesselmann describes the third approach as "looking at them as if they were air."

After passing the individual the assistant signalled another experimenter with a thumbs-up behind the back to stop that person and ask how disconnected they felt from other people. (One assumes that people on Purdue campus are used to being asked to participate in surveys). The people who had eye contact from the research assistant - with or without a smile - reported feeling less disconnected than those who had been looked at as if they werenít there.

"These are people that you donít know, just walking by you, but them looking at you or giving you the air gaze - looking through you - seemed to have at least momentary effect. What we find so interesting about this is that now we can further speak to the power of human social connection. It seems to be a very strong phenomenon.

Social Interactions Are Intense Experiences

September 2010 - The most intense positive and negative experiences tend to be associated with social interaction rather than individual accomplishment, according to research from the University at Buffalo published in Self and Identity.

Co-author Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology, said:

"Most of us spend much of our time and effort focused on individual achievements such as work, hobbies and schooling. However this research suggests that the events that end up being most important in our lives, the events that bring us the most happiness and also carry the potential for the most pain, are social events - moments of connecting to others and feeling their connections to us."

The authors explain that previous social psychological research into this topic has tended to conclude that independent events rather than those involving other individuals are responsible for the strongest emotional experiences.

The research was based on 376 subjects who participated in four interrelated studies. The first involved college students asked to describe the most positive and negative emotional experience of their lives. Irrespective of gender, they were much more likely to identify social rather than independent events. The second focused on middle-aged participants asked to describe a recent intense emotional experience with similar results. The third study was designed to exclude the possibility that social events simply have greater salience. The fourth found that social events have far greater impact and reflect the need to belong.

Shira Gabriel concluded:

"...it was not independent events or individual achievements like winning awards or completing tasks that affected participants the most, but the moments when close relationships began or ended; when people fell in love or found a new friend; when a loved one died or broke their hearts. In short, it was the moments of connecting to others that that touched peoples' lives the most."

* "What Makes Us Feel the Best Also Makes Us Feel the Worst: The Emotional Impact of Independent and Interdependent Experiences"

The researchers include principal author Lisa Jaremka, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Mauricio Cavallo, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, both graduates of UB.

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