From the Lab: Optimal Eye Contact

In many public speaking books (including The Science of Speaking), people often say that there are many different opinions on the optimal length of eye contact—probably a few seconds, they say, but nobody really knows exactly. It was a question that had never been conclusively answered.

Until now! In a recent study, reported by The Science of Us, researchers pinpointed the exact moment that eye contact starts to get awkward. In the study, participants were asked to watch a video like the one below, and press a button when the eye contact started to get awkward.

Before reading further, try it out for yourself. The video progressively shows 1 second of eye contact, 3 seconds of eye contact, and 8 seconds of eye contact, then repeats those same amounts with a timer running at the bottom. How much eye contact do you feel comfortable with?

Here’s what the participants in the study thought. PGD stands for “preferred gaze duration,” i.e., the time at which the participants said they’d had enough.

Distribution of “Preferred Gaze Duration” (PGD)

As you can see, the average (mean) response was 3.3 seconds, while the most common (mode) response was 2.8 seconds. So there we have it: for most people, eye contact starts to get awkward at around 3 seconds!

Of course, as always, this number will vary based on culture, as well as the specific goals and context of your speaking. But while we can still argue about how to interpret the data, and how to apply it in different contexts, we can no longer say that we don’t have any!

Leave a Reply