The science of side-by-side: Why we’re honest when we aren’t looking at each other

If you ask me to tell you what I’m really feeling, and we’re across the table from one another, or making direct eye contact in some regard, chances are you’ll get part of the truth. I’ll divulge as much as I am comfortable with while looking at you. Now, flip the script a bit and go on a run with me, all of a sudden, I am leaking information and haunted truths from my subconscious reserved, primarily, for therapy sessions, or waking nightmare realizations. How is it that when I’m running with a friend—one I’ve known for 10 years or 10 minutes—we don’t bond over actual running talk, but childhood trauma and other generally fucked up bits about ourselves?

It’s so much easier to talk about your deepest feelings when you’re not making direct eye contact with someone. Perhaps you’ve experienced this during a therapy session or when confiding in a friend while out on a run. This isn’t just by accident, and this phenomenon isn’t just in your head – there’s actual scientific evidence to back it up. With beakers and shit (sorta).

Why Eye Contact Can Make It Difficult To Be Honest

First, let’s explore why eye contact can make it difficult to open up. Eye contact is a powerful nonverbal communication tool that can convey a lot of information about our intentions, emotions, and thoughts. When we make direct eye contact with someone, it can feel like we’re being scrutinized and judged. This can trigger feelings of vulnerability and anxiety, making it harder to open up.

Research has shown that eye contact can activate the amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for processing emotions like fear and anxiety. A study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion found that participants who made direct eye contact with a stranger reported feeling more anxious and uncomfortable than those who didn’t make eye contact. These findings suggest that eye contact can elicit a stress response that interferes with our ability to share our emotions.

The Regulation of Our Emotional Arousal

Another reason why it might be easier to open up when we’re not making direct eye contact is that it allows us to regulate our emotional arousal. When we’re facing someone head-on, we’re more likely to experience a strong emotional response. This can make it harder to think rationally and articulate our thoughts and feelings clearly. By looking away or engaging in a distracting activity, like walking or running, we can lower our emotional arousal and think more clearly about what we want to say.

A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that participants who communicated with a partner via instant messaging (IM) reported feeling more emotionally connected and intimate than those who communicated face-to-face. The researchers suggest that the lack of visual cues and the ability to edit and revise messages allowed participants to be more vulnerable and honest in their communication.

Eye Contact Can Increase Our Self-Awareness

Additionally, communicating without direct eye contact can help us feel less judged and evaluated. In a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, participants who made direct eye contact with a confederate during a conversation reported feeling more self-conscious and judged than those who didn’t make eye contact. This suggests that eye contact can increase our self-awareness and make us more sensitive to others’ opinions and judgments.

Makes sense. It’s easier to open up and share our deepest feelings when we’re not making direct eye contact with someone. Eye contact can trigger feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, increase emotional arousal, and make us more self-conscious and sensitive to judgments. Communicating through instant messaging or engaging in distracting activities like walking or running can lower emotional arousal, regulate our emotions, and help us feel less judged and evaluated. Remember, it’s okay to take your time and find the communication method that works best for you.

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