New research suggests that people who exhibit certain personality traits feel uncomfortable locking eyes with others. So if you feel awkward making eye contact, it’s not your fault.
According to a paper published in Neuropsychologia last week, those who exhibit neurotic characteristics feel uncomfortable when holding someone’s gaze. Specifically, explained co-author Professor Jari Hietanen of Finland, people who tend to be more neurotic. Hietanen told Fusion in an email that he and co-author Helen Uusberg of the University of Tartu in Estonia used the Five Factor Model to measure personality. Those five factors are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Hietanan said that "the results showed that participants’ scores on the neuroticism factor were correlating with the brain activity patterns to eye contact. Scores on the other factors were not.”
Neuroticism can be broken down into subsets, including “withdrawal” and “volatility.” Said Hietanen: “Withdrawal is related to inhibition and is characterized by anxiety, depression, high self-consciousness, and feeling vulnerable. Volatility, on the other hand, is related to lability, irritability…hostility, and impulsiveness.”
According to Hietanen, people who hate eye contact the most tend to exhibit traits associated with withdrawal, rather than volatility. Ultimately, high-scoring participants "wanted to look at another person with a direct gaze for shorter periods of time and felt more pleasant when facing another person with an averted gaze.”
The results were very specific to eye contact. Hietanen and Uusberg looked at how people who showed signs of neuroticism reacted to direct eye contact, an averted gaze, and closed eyes, but found that only direct eye contact triggered a feeling of discomfort.
The scientists decided to research the link between personality and comfort level with eye contact after noticing that for some, eye contact didn’t have the expected effect of triggering the part of our brain that registers approach motivation. Approach motivation is generally understood to be an inclination towards something that we perceive as positive.
“Our previous [research] showed that eye contact triggered patterns of brain activity associated with approach motivation, whereas seeing averted gaze triggered either less approach-motivation related brain activity or even brain activity associated with avoidance motivation. However, we did not these clear differences in all of our studies. This was of course a bit puzzling.”
Now, he says, they see that the difference is driven by personality traits.
The results don’t necessarily move us closer to figuring out how people uncomfortable with eye contact can train themselves to feel better about holding someone’s gaze. Hiatenan points to some efforts to train people with autism to make eye contact as an imperfect solution. “Even if people can be trained to increase their amount of eye contact it doesn’t necessarily mean that eye contact is more positive to them as compared to before training situation.”
For now, gaze-avoiding readers, know you’re not alone.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.