The way we respond to being stared at may reveal how much power we think we have

Niki K

When someone looks you square in the eye, is your first instinct to look away or meet their gaze?

In a blog post for Psychology Today, Audrey Nelson discusses how continuous eye contact for ten seconds or longer is disconcerting. It can make the recipient feel like they have something in their teeth, or that they are being challenged.

However, it doesn’t have to be prolonged eye contact for some people to feel uncomfortable. Certain individuals just don’t like looking into other people’s eyes. Those with autism, for example, can find looking someone in the eyes incredibly stressful.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who dislikes eye contact is on the autistic spectrum, though. According to research discussed in another blog post in Psychology Today, avoiding someone’s gaze could also be an evolutionary behaviour we have picked up to respond to threats. If someone is staring at us and we feel uncomfortable, we might start thinking we are of a lower status, or they are trying to intimidate us.

New research led by Mario Weick, a psychology professor at the University of Kent, sought to find out whether a person’s sense of power affected their responses to displays of dominance, like staring. The results were published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Subjects took part in two studies. In the first, 80 people were randomly split up in to low-power, neutral, and high-power groups. Then the researchers used “mind-set priming” where they asked the participants to write about a past event where they felt disempowered, neutral, or powerful relative to the group they were put in.

Weick et alThey were then placed in a virtual world using a VR headset, and told to walk around a target. They were asked to do this twice — once walking around a robot and once walking around a person.

Weick and the team found that participants who had written about feeling powerful were more likely to approach targets that looked directly at them than those who had…

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