Cultures perceive direct eye contact differently

People have romanticized the eyes for centuries, claiming to be able to read the emotions within them — anger, lust, joy. Eye contact is important in everyday interactions with other people, as a face with a direct gaze captures our attention. While researchers have established that people can accurately determine where a person is looking, comparisons between different cultural groups of perceived eye contact had yet to be studied — until this past February, as published in PLoS ONE.

Scientists compared two cultural groups — Finnish and Japanese — to see if eye contact perception differed between the two. Past studies have shown that Westerners, in general, look to the mouth to determine facial expressions, and focus on the eyes and mouth when memorizing faces; East Asians attend to the eyes and center of the face, respectively. Eye contact for Western cultures is more important than East Asian cultures. Another difference between these two cultures is the perception of emotion strength; East Asians perceived subjective emotions as more intense than Westerners.

The participants in the study consisted of 30 Finnish and 30 Japanese young adults, most of whom were female. The researchers showed participants a dot in the middle of the screen, followed by either a Japanese or a Finnish face, and then the response window, which gave the participants the options of ‘looking at me’ or ‘not looking at me’. Each model and each variation of gaze (0 degrees, 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 in either direction) was shown to each participant for a total of 176 trials.

Participants responded the most correctly to faces that were truly looking at them (0 degrees). The Finnish participants incorrectly believed more Japanese models to be looking at them than the Japanese participants, which suggests that cultural differences in “eye contact behavior might modulate the effect of visual expertise.” Extended eye contact is avoided in Japanese culture, which may have affected their ability to discern direct eye contact.

As many cultures are constantly congregating, from fields such as business to healthcare, it is important to note how they interact with each other. This includes subtle differences like eye contact, which can be a deal breaker or deal maker in any context.