While communicating, people tend to direct their gazes to the face (particularly eyes) of people. Why don't rather we look at their neck or just their chest or even their hair while communicating with people? What are we looking for?

A sign, a hint about that person's thoughts. Obviously that is the case ,but on the other hand, I think there is something more about that. Take those movie scenes in which people's head cut off their shoulder and they are still alive. I think the whole body doesn't seem human to me, whereas the head seems definitely so. Is it just a stable reference point that we've picked after centuries, or is it a native property specialized for a certain purpose of human kind?


2 Answers 2


Eye contact is one of the principal cues humans use to evaluate where other people direct their attention. A special issue on the use of eye tracking in the Infancy journal and other studies reported that infants' eyes are useful measures of attention over a range of task domains including object perception (Johnson, Slemmer, & Amso, 2004), faces (Hunnis & Geuze, 2004), and categorization (McMurray & Aslin, 2004).

This relationship between eyes and attention begins developing as early as within the first couple of neonatal weeks (Lohaus, Keller and Voelker, 2001). For the same reason, eye- and gaze tracking are central measures in many areas of the cognitive sciences, including developmental (neuro)psychology, perception and working memory.

Because gaze is such a good general indicator of attention, mutual eye contact between myself and someone indicates that we are both attending to one another, if not always, then at least often enough to depend on.


  • Lohaus, A., Keller, H., & Voelker, S. (2001). Relationships between eye contact, maternal sensitivity, and infant crying. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(6), 542-548.
  • Hunnis , S. and Geuze , R. H. 2004. Developmental changes in visual scanning of dynamic faces and abstract stimuli in infants: A longitudinal study. Infancy, 6(2): 231–255.
  • Johnson, S. P., Slemmer, J. A., & Amso, D. (2004). Where Infants Look Determines How They See: Eye Movements and Object Perception Performance in 3‐Month‐Olds. Infancy, 6(2), 185-201.
  • McMurray , B. and Aslin , R. N. 2004. Anticipatory eye movements reveal infants' auditory and visual categories. Infancy, 6(2): 203–229.
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, for that detailed answer. But still, I could not quite get the reason behind why would a head, a part from its body, seem more familiar or maybe "friendly", than a body a part from its head. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2015 at 13:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BerkayGökova Unfortunately, my answer does not provide any information about that, only about "why people look in the face or eyes while communicating." This seems like a separate question (which you could ask, but I don't know whether it's actually the case that people generally find disembodied heads friendlier than decapitated bodies). $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2015 at 13:44

I don't have a complete answer, but I'll add on to Christian's comment.

I'm not really familiar with an evolutionary account of facial expressions, but folks like Adam K. Anderson have implied that the original use of facial features for sensory sampling have been co-opted for social use (e.g., to indicate attention, which Christian pointed out, or affect, etc.; this is a common argument for the evolution of basic emotions like disgust and fear, e.g., Fridlund, 2004).

In general, I think Christian is spot on about why we make eye contact during conversations. However, I will note that we don't just look at the face while communicating (e.g., Barrett, Mesquita & Gendron, 2011). After all, the face is situated in a context and is attached to a body. That is, social and emotional cues are not interpreted based on the face alone. For example, Hanna and Brennan (2007) point out:

An interlocutor’s eye gaze is a signal with its own dynamic characteristics that must be integrated with speech or action in order to be useful.

Also, social rules about eye contact during conversation may be dependent on the culture (e.g, Senju et al., 2013).


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.