The effect of eye contact on arousal and attention

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Linna building, Väinö Linna auditorium, address: Kalevantie 5.

Terhi Helminen

Doctoral defence of M.A. (Psych.) Terhi Helminen

The effect of eye contact on arousal and attention : A psychophysiological perspective

The field of science of the dissertation is Psychology.

The opponent is professor Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon (Newcastle University, UK).  Professor Jari Hietanen acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

The effect of eye contact on arousal and attention - A psychophysiological perspective

The present thesis investigated the effects of direct gaze on a perceiver’s arousal and attentional responses, indexed by autonomic nervous system responses. It was shown that the direct gaze of another person causes elevated arousal responses. The elevated arousal caused by direct gaze was shown to affect performance in a story recall task. In addition, it was shown that direct gaze does not capture the attention of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as efficiently as it does of their peers.

It was shown that the direct gaze of a live person causes elevated arousal responses, measured with skin conductance, when compared with averted gaze or closed eyes. Enhanced arousal responses to direct gaze were observed irrespective of the length of the direct gaze. Previous studies have shown that personality characteristics affect people’s eye contact behaviour. In the present study, individual differences in emotional stability were found to affect whether a person tended to approach or avoid another person who was looking at him or her. Instead, enhanced arousal responses were found irrespective of individual differences in personality.

Previous studies have shown that eye contact have an influence on cognitive performance for example in memory tasks. In the present study, it was shown that this effect was mediated by changes in arousal, but only partially. Presumably eye contact affects also effort allocation and motivation. The effects of eye contact on performance can be either positive or negative, depending on several different situational factors, like for example, characteristics of the counterparts, or their relationship. In the present study, effects of gender were found. The participants of these studies were mainly young adults.

In addition, the present study investigated the reasons behind the reduced eye contact behaviour in children with ASD. It was shown that children with ASD did not respond to direct gaze with an enhanced orientation response, measured with heart rate deceleration, whereas their typically developing and developmentally delayed peers did. The results indicate that a reason for reduced eye contact behaviour in ASD might be related to omitting direct gaze as it is not a socially salient signal for them. The participants in this study were 2 - 5-year-old low-functioning children with severe ASD and their peers without autism. Most of the earlier research has focused on high-functioning school-aged children with autism, mostly because of challenges in guiding young, nonverbal, and low-functioning children through the experimental procedures.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2300, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2017. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1803, Tampere University Press 2017.

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