February 17, 2014

A Close Look at the Wisdom of Eye Contact in Business and in the Wild

You think you know when business eye contact is smart and when it isn’t?

What about eye contact with a mountain lion that’s spotted you deep in a forest?

Even though interviews and other meetings are generally much safer than a face-to-face with a mountain lion, they pose risks of their own, if you follow the wrong “rules” of eye contact, as some unwittingly do while hiking in cougar or bear country.

The Rules of Eye Engagement—a Guide to Survival in the Woods and the Office

There are black bears and the occasional mountain lion—which can leap horizontally up to 45 feet in one go—prowling the cozy, woodsy British Columbia community where I live.

A few months ago, an adult mountain lion was “euthanized” after getting too close to humans here. A local friend and his wife routinely have a resident pack of black bears [shown below] wandering through, raiding and frolicking in his forest-side backyard.

One very tough, outdoorsy friend, in Colorado, has taken to packing his licensed open-carry .38 while jogging, since seeing the sign, below, posted a short prowl from his house, that warns of mountain lions [a.k.a.” cougar” or “puma”] in the immediate vicinity of his upscale neighborhood.

A big question they and you need the correct answer for is when is eye contact or the lack of it a huge mistake?

See this mountain lion in the top photo? Of course you do—that gaze is as mesmerizing and scary as your returning it is instinctive. If it were the real deal, the mountain lion would be seeing you, which raises the high-stakes question, should you return the gaze and make eye contact, or resist that primal urge?

How about initiating or sustaining the gaze, or maybe even a bold stare?—and not just with wildlife, but in interviews, presentations and other face-to-face encounters?

Although the stakes are smaller in job interviews, your livelihood, even if not your life, may be jeopardized, if not leopardized, by wrong eye-contact behavior.

According to recent research, discussed below, eye contact in face-to-face professional situations can be, in its own way, as costly as face-to-snout contact in the wild is alleged or denied to be by wildlife experts—and for similar reasons.

Not Seeing Eye to Eye

Moreover, like conflicting animal research, contradictory conclusions of social science research can also create confusion about when, whether, how and with whom to initiate, reciprocate, sustain or terminate eye contact.

As for wild animals, before you Google “mountain lion + eye contact + experts”, be forewarned that, as suggested, wildlife “experts” disagree—with your life potentially hanging in the balance.

The Colorado warning sign shown here is emphatic about the importance of NOT making eye contact. Yet, just a tad to the southwest, in Arizona, the corresponding official Arizona government wildlife agency advice is precisely the opposite: “Maintain eye contact and slowly back away toward a building, vehicle, or busy area.”

In a phone conversation with me, Jim Paxon, Chief of Information for Arizona Game and Fish Department unreservedly repeated that advice as one aspect of the wisdom of trying to “look like a bigger and badder predator”.

Now why would Arizona and Colorado disagree on something so important and basic, when getting it wrong could cost lives? Likewise, how could social scientists disagree about eye contact?

In her phone conversation with me, and in response to the Arizona advice, Jennifer Churchill, Public Information Officer for the Northeast Region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife supported the idea that, in the event that the mountain lion has just eaten and is not in stalking mode, it is possible that the antagonizing dominance issue may kick in, a concern biologists working with the Colorado agency have expressed.

Emphasizing the unpredictability of animal behavior, she added,  “Due to the fact that, fortunately, there aren’t many mountain lion attacks on humans, the data are limited and may not accurately reflect possible variations in the temperament, behavior or feeding status of an individual animal.”

Complicating matters even more, there can be variation across species of wild animals: Although “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” may be true of geese, there are reasons to believe that what’s good or wise with a mountain lion may not be so with some species of bears—something essential to know in my neighborhood.

The Business of Eye Contact, the Eye Contact of Business

In business terms, as will be argued below, whether to make eye contact in a professional context may depend as much upon the “species” of business animal beheld as well as upon the circumstances or objectives—a distinction it is wise to respect.

Consider this—bearing in mind [no dumb pun intended] that, while mountain lions are pure predators, black bears—with terrifying rare exceptions, usually lone males—are not, generally preferring berries over babies as a diet staple.

Hence, the mountain lion as a predator, unlike the usually non-predatory black bear, depends heavily on the element of surprise, since its favored attack is from the rear—which is one reason joggers are at risk, especially if they are small.

So, my layman’s guess is that making eye contact is advised in Arizona because it blows the mountain lion’s cover, destroying the element of surprise, while presenting a mirroring, intimidating predator face.

Species of Looks: Dominant, Subordinate, Friendly, Hostile, Vigilant and Predatory

Similarly, in a business situation, if the “look”—the gaze or stare—of the other is clearly not that of an adoring admirer, entranced listener or polite audience, you may be faced with a choice between prey-like helpless submission or retaliatory self-assertion in the face of asserted dominance and intimidation.

Which you opt for will depend on what you perceive to be the stakes and the odds of winning vs. losing.

Another reason for the likelihood of a no-eye-contact induced, from-the-rear attack, is that jogging away from a mountain lion appears to be what it should be: flight from danger, when not pursuit of food or mates.

Hence, to a stalking mountain lion, the jogger probably looks like frightened prey on the run. But, ironically, if you try that with a human, and maintain no eye contact by turning your back, you may very well be perceived to be arrogant, with pretensions of dominance and entitlement to be dismissive toward a perceived inferior.

Now, consider the opposite and extrapolate from locking eyes with a mountain lion to business and social situations: Are you returning the intimidating, menacing gaze of a predator or dominant or the fawning gaze of a subordinate?

If you initiate eye contact in a job interview, are you risking over-playing the role of a dominant, or coming across as an aggressor? Or are you, instead, communicating interest, attentiveness, respect or maybe even flirtiness?

As with bears and mountain lions, it all depends.

Ironically, the gentler black bear may be the more dangerous to make eye contact with, if that contact is not, as it is with the mountain lion, importantly communicating that you have not been caught unawares or, equally usefully, that you too may be a dangerous predator. Why not a good idea? I’m guessing again, but, direct eye contact with a non-predatory black bear may make you unwisely look like the predator—which, with an alerted momma bear defending its cubs, is probably not a good idea.

Eye Contact as Loss of Focus

A second irony, with humans, is that eye contact may communicate attentiveness and extreme interest at the expense of precisely that attentiveness and interest.

For example, the recruiter is drop-dead gorgeous. The applicant can’t take his eyes off her, at the expense of his ears. Result: He can’t follow or follow up on what she’s saying, and in a hideous irony, will come across as not interested in the job, or at least not interested in what he’s supposed to be interested in.

Most guys will remember having forgotten or not heard a woman’s name precisely because her beauty or wonderful something else about her distracted them. Many will also remember that was the last chance for any kind of contact they ever got from her.

Perhaps this kind of attraction and distraction effect is why the researchers authoring the recent University of British Columbia/Freiberg University eye-contact study discovered that

  • Participants were more likely to find speakers convincing when they focused on their mouths rather than on their eyes. [So, I suppose that if you are a speaker, get your audience to look at your lips, e.g., with lipstick, even if you are neither a woman nor a rock star.]
  • The more time participants spent looking at a speaker’s eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker’s argument.
  • Overall, spending more time looking at the speaker’s eyes was only associated with greater receptiveness to the speaker’s opinion among those who already agreed with the speaker’s opinion on that issue [which I suspect may in part be attributable to a “love me, love my dog ideas” effect, where further agreement with the speaker’s ideas is a consequence, not a cause, of finding the speaker attractive. The danger for the speaker is that of misreading eye contact as receptiveness, in which case some other connection with the audience should be pursued.]
  • Direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds — not more, as previously believed [which, I suspect, given that skepticism is distancing, makes the speaker, what [s]he says, and therefore the eye contact, less appealing and compelling. Hence, with that kind of skeptical audience, an alternative form of connection, e.g., more compelling presentation content, is advised.]
  •  Eye contact can signal very different messages depending on the situation. For example, Julia Minton of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-lead researcher of the study said that while eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it’s more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial circumstances. [Presumably, the eye-contact message will vary dramatically with the degree of attraction or repulsion. Again, the grave danger here is in misreading the real message as its opposite.]

Crowd Contact and Eye Contact: a Possible Similar Amplifier Effect

These research results also suggest or are at least consistent with another hypothesis of mine: Like crowding, which sociologists have argued works like an amplifier, eye contact may amplify a pre-existing mood, intuition or message of the moment.

Other research has suggested that if we have positive pre-existing feelings, attitudes or expectations about others crowded into a space with us, those feelings, e.g., of attraction, as well as discomfort or repulsion, can be amplified in some circumstances.

For example, consider being a guy in a crowded elevator, pressed up against attractive, nicely scented secretaries going to lunch. If you have a perfume or estrogen allergy, make it an elevator full of cute puppies. Now, imagine an elevator full of whomever you hate to be around even when they don’t need a bath. Either way, the baseline feeling gets hugely amplified.

The same may be true for eye contact—my hunch being that it too may serve to amplify moods and intuitions. If a candidate believes an interviewer is favorably disposed toward her, she may well consider reciprocating, sustaining and even initiating eye contact, with the consequence or objective of amplifying the positive tone of their interaction. The same logic applies to casual touch, e.g., on an elbow or shoulder.

On the other hand, if the interview is not going well or if the applicant senses a negative evaluation, a turf battle [for example, regarding professionalism or expertise], a tyrannical personality or anything else somehow unwelcome, eye contact is only likely to exacerbate the power imbalance and negative tone.

However, if a “best defense is a good offense” strategy seems to be appropriate to the situation, then equally strong and confrontational eye contact may be just what is needed—but with the understanding that it is likely to, on this amplifier theory, amount to a ratcheting up of the level of confrontation, much as two fighters’ trading fierce stares accomplish that at the glove tap.

This concept of eye-contact amplification best legitimizes the strategy I would adopt in an encounter with an interviewer, a mountain lion or a black bear: Giving the nod to the wildlife experts in Arizona and their advice to sustain eye contact with the mountain lion—which is more than keeping an eye on it, I’d try to amplify my self-presentation as another predator, rather than prey, unless I’ve startled a mountain lion with cubs, in which case, I imagine my trying to look like a stalking predator would at best generate mixed results.

Betting on the amplifier effect with a black bear as well, I’d take the context and the inherent nature of the bear into account, and quickly decide, after a glance, whether I saw something in the bear’s eyes or the situation that warranted an attempt to amplify it, e.g., a forest encounter with “Winnie the Pooh” or “Gentle Ben”—with the odds hugely against that being very likely.

Instead, I’d operate on the assumption that sustained eye contact with an enraged basically vegetarian momma black bear is either dumb or needless, since it would not serve the useful purpose it would in serving a mountain lion notice that it been noticed and that I too am a predator.

As for direct eye contact with an interviewer obviously eager to have his lunch…

…it becomes a tougher call.


Disclaimer: Since I am not a wildlife expert and because even experts disagree, you should confer with local wildlife management, guides or researchers to determine best behavior in the wild and be bold enough to address any conflicting information and advice.

Talking with locals while on holiday in Colorado and Arizona may help clear that up.

…if an encounter with a mountain lion there doesn’t.

Read more in Interview Tips

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).