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Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 1
RUNNING HEAD: Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 869-82
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation:
Averted Eye Gaze Leads to Feelings of Ostracism and Relational Devaluation
James H. Wirth1 Donald F. Sacco2 Kurt Hugenberg2 Kipling D. Williams1
1Purdue University 2Miami University
703 Third Street
West Lafayette, IN 47907
Phone: 765 494 6884
Fax: 765 496 1264
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 2
Eye gaze is often a signal of interest, and when noticed by others, leads to mutual and directional
gaze. However, averting one’s eye gaze toward an individual has the potential to convey a strong
interpersonal evaluation. The averting of eye gaze is the most frequently used non-verbal cue to
indicate the silent treatment, a form of ostracism (Williams, Shore, & Grahe, 1998). We argue
that eye gaze can signal the relational value felt towards another person. In three studies,
participants visualized interacting with an individual displaying averted or direct eye gaze.
Compared to receiving direct eye contact, participants receiving averted eye gaze felt ostracized,
signaled by thwarted basic need satisfaction, reduced explicit and implicit self-esteem, lowered
relational value, and increased temptations to act aggressively toward the interaction partner.
Keywords: Eye gaze, ostracism, social exclusion, sociometer, aggression
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 3
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation:
Averted Eye Gaze Leads to Feelings of Ostracism and Relational Devaluation
The eyes have it. When we look at the faces of others, we tend to look first and most
frequently at their eyes (see Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007 for a review). Indeed, attending
to others’ eyes appears to be a hardwired human trait and appears highly functional in
developing social cognition (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995; Striano & Reid, 2006). Individuals who
do not preferentially attend to or understand eye gaze typically experience serious social and
developmental deficits (e.g., autism; see Dalton et al., 2005). Attending to others’ eyes is so
critical because of the wealth of information that eyes convey. Others’ eyes can signal their facial
identities (Schwarzer, Huber, & Dummler, 2005), their emotions (Smith, Cottrell, Gosselin, &
Schyns, 2005), intentions and evaluations (Frischen et al., 2007) and assist in making social
interactions go smoothly (Nummenmaa, Hyönä, & Hietanen, in press).
When others’ eyes attend to a stimulus, we not only know that they are likely to act upon
that stimulus (Kanwisher & Wojciulik, 2000), but we may also imbue that stimulus with
positivity. For example, Corneille, Mauduit, Holland, and Strick (2009) had participants view a
computer screen in which a dog’s head and consumer products were displayed. The dog’s head
either looked toward the consumer products, or away from them. The longer the dog’s gaze was
leveled at a product, the more positively participants evaluated the product. Similarly, Bayliss,
Paul, Cannon, and Tipper (2006) found that objects that others have been seen gazing upon are
liked more than are objects that had not previously been targeted by others’ gaze. Importantly,
this is not simply due to the orienting function of others’ gaze; others’ gaze does not imbue
positivity if arrows replace others’ eyes as the orienting stimuli. Collectively, these findings
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 4
suggest that others’ eye gaze can imbue a target with an evaluation; more gaze tends to elicit
Not surprisingly, this evaluative function of eye gaze makes it invaluable in regulating
social interaction (e.g., Argyle & Cook, 1976; Frischen et al., 2007; Kleinke, 1986). We like
those who gaze at us, relative to those who gaze away (Mason, Tatkow, & Macrae, 2005).
During an interaction, eye gaze can indicate not just interest in what a person is saying
(Richmond, McCroskey, & Hickson, 2008), but also helps to regulate the ongoing interaction
(Hietanen, Leppänen, Peltola, Linna-aho, & Ruuhiala, 2008). We spontaneously infer that those
who gaze at us may be interested in interacting with us, relative to those who gaze away. Indeed,
receiving direct eye gaze alone prompts activation of the approach-related motivational brain
systems (Hietanen et al., 2008). As Kleinke (1986) argues, eye gaze is essential to social
regulation, including facilitating communication goals, expressing intimacy, and establishing
We propose that one of the social functions of eye gaze (direct or averted) is as a signal
of relational evaluation in social interactions, or “the degree to which others regard their
relationship with the individual as valuable, important, or close” (Leary, 1999a, p. 33). Others
directing their attention to you can be a positive experience signaling social inclusion, whereas
being subjected to averted eye gaze can convey negative relational evaluations, serving as a
means of social exclusion. In the current research, we hypothesize that being subjected to others’
averted eye gaze signals a negative relational evaluation, relative to direct eye gaze. In short, we
predict that an averted eye gaze is experienced as a signal of social exclusion (i.e., the ‘silent
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 5
Aversive Reactions to Ostracism
Ostracism, whether it is due to the ‘silent treatment,’ or from more explicit exclusion, is a
painful experience (Williams, 2009). Indeed, the social pain associated with being ostracized
activates the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) of the brain, the same region associated
with experiencing physical pain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). Further, being
ostracized lowers one’s experience of having four fundamental human needs met (belonging,
control, self-esteem, meaningful existence) while engendering negative mood (Williams, 1997,
2009). Surprisingly, the initial flash of negativity created by ostracism tends to be unmoderated
by individual differences factors, participant gender, and situational factors, such as the source of
the ostracism (ingroup versus outgroup; see Williams, 2009 for a review). In short, ostracism
hurts, regardless of the circumstances.
Beyond drops in need fulfillment and mood, social exclusion can lead to numerous
behavioral consequences as well. First, ostracized individuals become more likely to harm
others. For example, participants gave less desired foods to players that ostracized them during a
computerized ball-toss game (i.e., who were not passed the ball for an extended period of time)
compared to players who included them (Chow, Tiedens, & Govan, 2008). This may be because
sources of ostracism are evaluated more negatively than sources of inclusion (Williams et al.,
2002; Zadro, Boland, & Richardson, 2006). However, ostracism also makes individuals more
likely to harm even innocent bystanders who did not cause the ostracism experience to occur.
Specifically, Warburton, Williams, and Cairns (2006) found that ostracized participants
administered louder noise blasts to a naïve confederate than did participants who were included.
Because human well-being powerfully benefits from social relationships, multiple
theorists have proposed that humans evolved a strong and universal need to belong (see
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 6
Baumeister & Leary, 1995). As part of this need, humans have also developed monitoring
systems that are highly sensitive to cues indicative of rejection or ostracism (Leary, 1999a,
1999b; Pickett & Gardner, 2005). Leary’s well-known Sociometer model (Leary, 1999a, 1999b;
Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Leary & Downs, 1995) posits an evolved mechanism – the
sociometer – that continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding current levels
of acceptance and rejection. The sociometer is particularly attuned to changes in relational
evaluation (Leary, 1999a). Cues conveying high relational evaluation raise state self-esteem,
whereas cues conveying low relational evaluation lower state self-esteem. Perceptions that one’s
relational value is lower than desired results in negative feelings (e.g., Buckley, Winkel, &
Leary, 2004; Leary, Cottrell, & Phillips, 2001). Moreover, the lowered fulfillment of basic
human needs (such as belonging, control, self-esteem, meaningful existence) caused by
ostracism may signal a need to address the low relational value that results from exclusion.
Specifically, perceived esteem, or how positively one is viewed by others (Hermann, Lucas, &
Friedrich, 2008), may also capture how individuals feel on a moment-by-moment basis in a
given relationship context.
If one detects their relational value is below the ideal set-point, they may make efforts to
improve their relational value with others. These efforts begin with cognitive changes that
facilitate re-inclusion efforts. An individual’s level of need to belong and loneliness are
correlated to the accuracy of recalling positive and negative social cues (e.g., facial expressions
and vocal tones; Gardner, Pickett, Jeffries, & Knowles, 2005; Pickett, Gardner, & Knowles,
2004). Individuals that are socially excluded have an enhanced memory for information that
could be used to attain social acceptance or minimize further social exclusion (Gardner, Pickett,
& Brewer, 2000), and become attuned to genuine signals of social inclusion (Bernstein, Young,
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 7
Brown, Sacco & Claypool, 2008). Using more overt measures, individuals who believe they will
be excluded express greater interest in making new friends and working with others, form more
positive impressions of novel social targets, and reward new interaction partners to a greater
extent (Maner, DeWall, Baumeister, & Schaller, 2007). Thus, via the sociometer, rejection may
perceptually and behaviorally guide excluded individuals towards sources of inclusion, causing
an increase in attunement to positive, inclusive social targets (DeWall, Maner, & Rouby, 2009).
From our perspective, given the sensitivity of such social monitoring systems, we
propose that even the simple non-verbal cue of exclusion carried by averted eye gaze will be
sufficient to signal low relational evaluation and perceived esteem. In short, because perceivers
are so sensitive to cues that indicate social rejection, even brief experiences of averted eye gaze
from others should elicit the sequelae of ostracism.
Non-verbal Cues of Social Exclusion: The Silent Treatment
Until recently there has been surprisingly little experimental research on the topic of non-
verbal signals of ostracism. In an Internet survey, Kerr (2007) investigated the signals that
college students report looking for when trying to detect when another person might be rejecting
them. Overall, participants listed 104 rejection cues, broken down into seven categories: hurting,
avoiding, exploiting, deregulating (ignoring norms governing social interaction), differentiating
(undermining one’s claim to group or relationship membership), slandering, and disengaging.
These cues were conveyed primarily through four modes: behavioral, verbal, paralinguistic (e.g.,
using an angry or sarcastic tone), and gesturing. Not surprisingly, many cues are direct verbal
rejections (e.g., “insulting me”). However, of the self-reported non-verbal cues that signal
rejection, eye gaze (e.g., “giving me a sideways look”; “rolling his or her eyes”) and facial
expressions (e.g., “scowling or frowning”; “angry/indignant expression”) appeared rather
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 8
important. Indeed, eye gaze can be used to indicate the termination of an interaction (an act of
disengagement; Richmond et al., 2008), and in Kerr’s (2007) survey the largest number of
rejection acts involved disengaging.
The silent treatment (i.e., the “cold shoulder”) involves disengaging oneself from another
individual, often as a demonstration of contempt. Such social disengagement is ubiquitous; 75
percent of Americans report having received the silent treatment and 67 percent admit to using
the tactic on their loved one (Faulkner, Williams, Sherman, & Williams, 1997). Williams, Shore,
and Grahe (1998) found that individuals report having a vast arsenal of ways to indicate
disinterest and low relational evaluation (224 unique ways). However Williams and colleagues
found that the most powerful tool for conveying the silent treatment may have nothing to do with
refraining from talking. Instead, not making eye contact was the most commonly reported
behavior involved in both giving and receiving the silent treatment. Indeed, the list of the top five
most frequent silent treatment behaviors was topped by not making eye contact (listed by 73% of
the respondents), followed by not talking (54%), making a definite effort to ignore (42%), trying
to avoid all contact (40%), and not responding to any questions or comments (40%). Thus, it
seems that averted eye gaze may be a primary mechanism for signaling low relational evaluation.
Overview of the Present Studies
Past research has reliably found others’ eye gaze to be important in evaluating non-social
stimuli (e.g., Bayliss et al., 2006; Corneille et al., 2009), that we like those who gaze at us (e.g.,
Mason et al., 2005), and that people often report averting eye gaze when terminating an
interaction or when giving the silent treatment (e.g., Richmond et al., 2008; Williams et al.,
1998). However, surprisingly little research has experimentally investigated the effects of non-
verbal signals of rejection, and to the authors’ knowledge no research has experimentally shown
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 9
that direct and averted eye gaze is alone sufficient to signal social inclusion and exclusion,
We argue that direct eye gaze may convey positive relational evaluation and thus serves
as a signal of social inclusion, whereas averted eye gaze may convey low relational evaluation
which could engender feelings of ostracism. Moreover, given humans’ sensitivity to non-verbal
cues generally and to cues of social rejection specifically, we predict that even being briefly
subjected to averted eye gaze (even by a computerized and clearly non-human ‘confederate’; see
also Haley & Fessler, 2005) should be sufficient to elicit powerful reactions consistent with the
experience of ostracism. Thus, humans’ highly sensitive social monitoring systems (Leary,
1999a, 1999b; Pickett & Gardner, 2005) will result in even brief experiences of averted eye gaze
being experienced as ostracism, leading to all of the expected sequelae of social exclusion (e.g.,
reduced basic need fulfillment, negative mood, enhanced aggression, etc.)
We provide novel evidence for these hypotheses across three experiments in which
participants briefly watch a face on a computer screen that either directs its eye gaze at the
participant, or averts its eye gaze by looking left and right, but not at the participant. In
Experiment 1, we find that even after experiencing a brief period of averted eye gaze, relative to
direct eye gaze, participants feel both excluded and ignored, and report lower feelings of
belonging, lower self-esteem, and greater negative mood. Experiment 2 replicates these effects,
while also finding that averted eye gaze signals lowered relational evaluation, relative to direct
eye gaze (i.e., that the relationship is less valuable, important, and close). Additionally,
Experiment 2 indicates that averted eye gaze leads participants to wish to aggress more against
the gaze-averter, and leads participants to infer less positive personality traits about the gaze-
averter, relative to those providing direct eye gaze. Finally, Experiment 3 finds that averted eye
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 10
gaze also leads to reductions in implicit self-esteem, relative to direct eye gaze, indicating that
brief bouts of averted eye gaze can at least temporarily change self-related evaluative
Past surveys indicate that people report using averted eyes to signal displeasure or
rejection (e.g., Kerr, 2007; Williams et al., 1998). In Study 1, we attempted to empirically
demonstrate that people actually experience other’s averted eye gaze as ostracism. We
investigated the effect of direct versus averted eye gaze on an individual’s experience of
ostracism by having participants view a brief (2.5 minute) movie on a computer screen
displaying a human face (i.e., an ‘avatar’) that either directed its eye gaze at participants, or
averted its eye gaze from participants by looking left and right. Eye gaze was manipulated on a
between-subjects basis. All participants were instructed to ‘mentally visualize’ being in an
interaction with the computerized face during the movie. In a second task, all participants then 1)
reported how excluded and ignored they felt by the computerized face, 2) completed the Basic
Needs Scale (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000), and 3) reported their currently experienced
positive and negative moods.
We hypothesized that, relative to direct eye gaze, participants who were subjected to
averted eye gaze would feel more ostracized, specifically feeling excluded and ignored, would
experience lower basic need satisfaction, and would have worsened mood.
Participants and Design
Twenty six (11 females) undergraduate students participated as part of a college course.
Participants’ average age was 18.9 (SD=.86) years and most participants were Caucasian
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 11
(92.3%). The direct versus averted eye gaze of the computerized face was manipulated between-
The materials consisted of 8 different 2.5 minute ‘movies,’ constructed from four
different actors’ faces (2 male, 2 female). Two separate male and female actors’ faces were used
to enhance the generalizability of any effects. For each of the 4 actors’ faces, a direct gaze movie
and an averted gaze movie was constructed. Each movie was constructed from 4 still-frame
pictures of an actor’s face (see Figure 1): a direct gaze picture, a left-averted gaze picture, a
right-averted gaze picture, or closed eyes picture (blinking).1
All 8 movies consisted of the face gazing directly at the participant for 30 seconds,
blinking once per second. Direct eye gaze movies displayed the actor continuing to gaze at the
participant for an additional 2 minutes, with the images blinking once per second. Averted eye
gaze movies displayed the actor looking left, then looking right at one second intervals, with the
change in left-to-right eye gaze occurring following a blink, for the remaining 2 minutes of the
movie. Thus, after the initial 30 seconds, the faces in the averted eye gaze movies looked left,
looked right, and blinked, but never again looked directly at the participant (a time course similar
to ostracizing participants in Cyberball; Williams et al., 2000; Zadro, Williams, & Richardson,
2004). The amount of time the interaction partner blinked versus had open eyes was held
constant across direct gaze and averted gaze movies.
After providing informed consent, participants were instructed that they would engage in
a ‘mental visualization’ exercise, and then complete a series of questionnaires. Participants were
seated at individual computers and instructed that they would see a movie of a face on the
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 12
computer screen. Participants were asked to ‘mentally visualize’ the experience of interacting
with this individual. These instructions are similar to the ‘mental visualization’ instructions used
for the Cyberball paradigm.
All participants were then randomly assigned to view one of 8 computerized movies (4
actors × 2 conditions), which involved our primary manipulation of direct and averted eye gaze.
At the end of the movie, participants completed an experimental packet including the dependent
All participants then completed the same pencil-and-paper packet of dependent measures,
reporting on how they felt during the ‘mental visualization’ task. First, as a manipulation check
to ensure participants recognized receiving averted or direct eye gaze, participants indicated,
“What percentage of the time did the individual you interacted with look at you?” Participants
then completed a series of questions that have been used to measure the consequences of being
ostracized (e.g., Williams et al., 2000). All responses to these items were on a 1 (Not at all) to 5
(Very much) scale. Participants first responded to the items, “I was ignored,” and “I was
excluded,” to measure feelings of ostracism. All participants then completed the Basic Needs
Scale (see Williams et al., 2000; Zadro et al., 2006) in which they reported the currently levels of
satisfaction of their four basic needs: belonging (α=.52), control (α=.79), meaningful existence
(α=.72), and self-esteem (α=.89). Responses to these items were averaged together to create an
overall index of basic need satisfaction (α=.84). Finally, adopting previously used mood
measures following ostracism (Williams et al., 2000), participants indicated their positive mood
(friendly, happy, good; α=.89) and negative mood (angry, unpleasant, sad, bad, unfriendly;
α=.85). After completing all of the dependent measures, participants were thanked and debriefed.
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 13
Results and Discussion
Preliminary analyses first investigated whether the effects of eye gaze were qualified by
the sex of the interaction partner, or by participant gender. No such effects were observed,
ps>.18. This lack of interaction partner and participant gender effects is consistent with past
ostracism research which has found that individual differences or situational factors do not
moderate ostracism’s immediate impact (Williams, 2009).
Participants in the averted eye gaze condition reported their interaction partner looked
directly at them less frequently (M=21.38% of the interaction, SD=14.14) than did participants in
the direct eye gaze condition (M=77.50%, SD=30.04), t(23)=-6.06, p<.001, d=2.39, indicating
that participants were well aware of the eye gaze of the target face.
Feelings of Ostracism, Basic Needs, and Mood
Of primary interest was whether a brief experience with a computerized target averting its
gaze would elicit feelings of ostracism and its sequelae, relative to direct gaze. In support of our
hypotheses, participants who received averted eye gaze felt more excluded and ignored than
those who received direct eye gaze, ps<.01 (see Table 1 for a complete report of descriptive and
inferential statistics). Furthermore, participants reported lower overall basic need satisfaction,
p=.03, specifically indicating lower levels of belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence
when receiving averted compared to direct eye gaze, ps<.05. Contrary to prediction, eye gaze did
not affect feelings of control, p>.8. Our mood hypothesis was supported as participants felt more
negative mood, p=.02, but not positive mood, p=.2, when receiving averted eye gaze compared
to direct eye gaze. Taken together, these results indicate that receiving averted eye gaze from
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 14
another individual may be sufficient to elicit feelings of ostracism, and its attendant effects on
need fulfillment and mood. Study 1 provides initial evidence that direct versus averted eye gaze
is indeed a signal of relational evaluation. Averted eye gaze may signal low relational evaluation
and trigger the experience of ostracism, relative to direct eye gaze. More remarkably, these
effects emerge even though the person with whom participants were mentally visualizing an
interaction with was clearly a pre-programmed movie, with no ability to actually respond to
participants’ behavior in any way.
----- Insert Table 1 approximately here -----
In Study 2 we sought not only to replicate our initial findings, but also to more directly
test our hypothesis that averted eye gaze signals low relational evaluation, relative to direct eye
gaze. Past research has indicated that individuals who are rejected feel low relational evaluation
compared to those that are included (Buckley et al., 2004). Thus, individuals showing signs of
ostracism after experiencing averted eye gaze is indirect evidence for this relational evaluation
hypothesis. Study 2, however, is designed as a more direct test of this hypothesis. We used the
same paradigm as Study 1, but also included a direct measure of relational evaluation, in which
participants rated their beliefs of how close, how valuable, and how important they felt to the
person who was gazing at them during their imagined interaction (Leary, 1999a). Moreover,
Study 2 was designed to generalize the effects of Study 1 to a new domain: aggression.
Extensive research has found that experiencing ostracism leads individuals to become more
aggressive (Warburton, et al., 2006), especially toward those perpetrating the ostracism (Chow et
al., 2008). If the results of Study 1 are due to a true experience of ostracism, then even briefly
being subjected to averted eye gaze (even by a computerized other) should also elicit increased
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 15
aggressive tendencies, as has previously been found. Thus, Study 2 is designed to 1) replicate the
need fulfillment and mood effects of the previous study, 2) provide direct evidence that averted
eye gaze harms relational evaluation, and 3) generalize the effects of the previous study to
One hundred thirty three undergraduate students participated as part of a college course.
Twenty four of these participants did not provide demographic information. Of those who
provided demographic information, 79 were female, the average age of the participants was 21.2
(SD=3.74) years, and most of these participants were Caucasian (83.5%). Analyses involving
demographic information (gender) are based upon the 109 participants who provided this
information. All other analyses were based upon the full sample of 133 participants.
All participants completed this experiment during a regularly scheduled laboratory
section of an undergraduate psychology research methods course. Participants completed the
experiment one at a time at a classroom monitor that was out of sight of other participants. All
participants completed the same mental visualization task as in Study 1, wherein all participants
were randomly assigned to see a 2.5 minute movie of a male or a female face that gave either
direct eye gaze or averted eye gaze to participants. The movies used in Study 2 were identical to
those used in Study 1. After completing the mental visualization task, participants completed the
pencil-and-paper packet of dependent measures.
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 16
Participants first completed all of the dependent measures used in Study 1 using the same
a 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much) scales. Participants began by completing the same measures
used in Study 1: the eye gaze manipulation check, how excluded and ignored they felt, Basic
Needs Scale, involving belonging (α=.67), control (α=.69), meaningful existence (α=.76) and
self-esteem (α=.78), as well as their experienced positive mood (α=.88), and negative mood
(α=.85). All Basic Needs Scale items were averaged together to create an overall measure of
basic need satisfaction (α=.90). Finally, to further elaborate on the impact of averted eye gaze on
mood, we indexed five mood states suggested to be felt following rejection (Buckley et al., 2004.
Specifically we measured anger (irritated, annoyed, angry, mad; α=.87), happiness (happy,
delighted, cheerful, pleased; α=.88), hurt feelings (hurt, pained, injured, wounded; α=.85),
anxiety (anxious, nervous, tense, uneasy; α=.85), and sadness (depressed, dejected, sad, down;
Relational evaluation. To investigate how eye gaze conveys information on relational
evaluation, participants next completed items based on Leary’s (1999a) definition of relational
evaluation. Participants indicated how valuable, close, and important they felt to the
computerized ‘person’ gazing at them during the mental visualization task (α=.92), on a 1 (Not at
all) to 7 (Very much so) scale. Further, as a measure of the esteem in which they believed
themselves to be held, participants completed a feeling thermometer (0=Extremely negative;
100=Extremely positive) based on how participants believed their interaction partner felt about
them (“Right now, how does the person you interacted with feel about you?”).
Attributions for eye gaze. Several additional items were included to investigate whether
participants had inferred a meaning or cause of the eye gaze direction. Participants responded on
1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much) scales. To determine if participants recognized that their faux
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 17
interaction partner was trying to ostracize them, participants indicated if, “I felt this person was
trying to ignore or exclude me.” Participants responded to the item, “By looking away, this
person indicated our relationship was worthless to him or her,” to determine if participants
inferred eye gaze as a means of communicating relational evaluation. Finally, participants also
indicated if they felt the person they interacted with was trying to make them feel low relational
evaluation: their relationship was not valuable, not important, and that the participant was not
close to their interaction partner (α=.96).
Behavior temptations toward the interaction partner. To index whether averted eye gaze
also increased aggressive or prosocial (re-affiliative) tendencies and desires, participants
indicated how tempted they would be to perform a variety of behaviors if they were actually able
to meet their interaction partner in real life (Buckley et al., 2004). Participants were reminded
that we were not asking whether they would actually perform the behavior, but rather how
tempted they would be to enact the behaviors. Participants indicated how inclined they would be
to perform eight aggressive behaviors (e.g., “humiliate the person”; α=.93) and eight prosocial
behaviors (e.g., “smile at the person,”; α=.92) on a 1 (Not at all tempted) to 7 (Very tempted)
Social perception measures. Past ostracism research indicates that source(s) of ostracism
are evaluated more negatively than source(s) of inclusion (Williams et al., 2002; Zadro et al.,
2006). Thus, participants were asked to rate their interaction partner on how friendly, helpful,
boring, dishonest, caring, selfish, creative, insensitive and sincere, along with how physically
attractive he or she was (α=.88).
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 18
As in Study 1, preliminary analyses were conducted to investigate whether any of the
effects of eye gaze were qualified by interactions with participant gender or target sex. Only one
significant effect emerged across the 33 statistical tests: an Eye gaze × Participant gender
interaction on the Basic Need of control, F(1, 105)=5.56, p=.02, indicating that the effects of
averted eye gaze were stronger for men than for women. No other effects of eye gaze were
qualified participant gender or target sex interactions. The failure to find consistent and robust
participant gender or target sex effects again replicate past ostracism research finding no
participant or situational characteristics that moderate the initial negative experience of ostracism
In the averted eye gaze condition, participants indicated their interaction partner looked
directly at them less frequently (M=21.65%, SD=14.03) than did participants in the direct eye
gaze condition (M=85.78%, SD=23.33), t(130)=-19.27, p<.001, d=3.33, indicating that
participants were well aware of the direct and averted eye gaze they received.
Feelings of Ostracism, Basic Needs, Mood, and Emotion
We tested our hypothesis that receiving averted eye gaze, relative to direct eye gaze,
would engender the feeling of being excluded and ignored, and would therefore be detrimental to
participants’ basic need fulfillment and mood. This primary hypothesis was supported as
participants receiving averted, compared to direct eye gaze, felt more excluded and ignored,
ps<.001, less basic need satisfaction (for all basic needs), ps<.05, and more negative mood,
p=.03. Our in-depth analysis of mood found averted eye gaze led to less happiness, more hurt
feelings, more sadness, ps<.05, and marginally more anger, p=.07 than direct eye gaze (see Table
2 for a complete report). Once again, it appears that averted eye gaze led to feelings of ostracism,
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 19
thwarting of basic need satisfaction, and increased negative mood, relative to direct eye gaze.
Additionally, receiving averted eye gaze, relative to direct eye gaze, led to a similar negative
emotional response as being rejected (Buckley et al., 2004).
----- Insert Table 2 approximately here -----
We hypothesized averted eye gaze, compared to direct eye gaze, would cause participants
to feel lowered relational evaluation. As predicted, participants in the averted eye gaze condition
reported feeling lowered relational evaluation compared to those in the direct eye gaze condition
(see Table 2). We also found support for our hypothesis that receiving averted eye gaze, relative
to direct eye gaze, would be seen as a signal that the interaction partner held the participant in
Attributions for Eye Gaze
We explored if participants receiving averted eye gaze, relative to direct eye gaze, would
be more likely to perceive their interaction partner as trying to ostracize them, trying to indicate
their relationship was worthless, and that their interaction partner had evaluated them negatively.
Participants in the averted eye gaze condition were more likely to indicate the interaction partner
was trying to ostracize them (M=3.18, SD=1.44) than in the direct eye gaze condition (M=1.74,
SD=1.02), t(106)=5.99, p<.001, d=1.15. Additionally, interaction partners displaying averted eye
gaze (M=2.89, SD=1.17) compared to direct eye gaze (M=1.74, SD=1.08) were perceived as
more likely to be indicating their relationship with the participant was worthless, t(106)=5.34,
p<.001, d=1.03. Finally, participants receiving averted eye gaze were more likely to report their
interaction partner was trying to indicate he or she had low relational evaluation (M=2.64,
SD=1.20) compared to participants receiving direct eye gaze (M=1.83, SD=1.18), t(107)=3.56,
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 20
p=.001, d=.68. Individuals who received averted eye gaze were more likely to indicate their
‘interaction partner’ was trying to make them feel ostracized and were trying to signal low
Behavior Temptations Toward the Interaction Partner
We found support for our hypothesis that receiving averted eye gaze would lead to
increased aggressive tendencies. Participants receiving averted eye gaze were more tempted to
perform aggressive behaviors targeted at their ‘interaction partner’ (M=2.11, SD=1.29) than
those receiving direct eye gaze (M=1.65, SD=1.02), t(131)=2.23, p=.03, d=.39. Additionally,
participants that received averted eye gaze were less tempted to be prosocial toward their
‘interaction partner’ (M=3.73, SD=1.22) than those receiving direct eye gaze (M=4.50,
SD=1.45), t(131)=-3.35, p=.001, d=.58.
Social Perception Measures
Finally, as hypothesized participants receiving averted eye gaze rated their interaction
partner as having fewer positive and more negative traits (M=2.47, SD=.75) compared to
participants receiving direct eye gaze (M=3.05, SD=.79), t(107)=-3.96, p<.001, d=.76. These
results replicate findings that ostracism leads to lowered trait evaluation of the source of
ostracism (e.g., Williams et al., 2002; Zadro et al., 2006).
Study 2 successfully accomplished its three goals. Study 2 clearly replicated the effects of
Study 1, showing that averted eye gaze, relative to direct eye gaze, led to feelings of being
excluded and ignored, reduced participants’ fulfillment of basic human needs, and created more
negative mood and emotions. Second, Study 2 indicated that averted eye gaze led to the
subjective experience that the gaze averter was intending to signal that the interaction was low in
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 21
value and that the participant was held in low esteem. Third, Study 2 provided unique evidence
that merely being subjected to a few moments of averted eye gaze, relative to direct eye gaze,
engendered more aggressive and fewer prosocial behavioral temptations directed at the source of
ostracism, and that this source of ostracism was believed to have few positive and many negative
traits. Taken together, this study indicates that even being briefly subjected to averted eye gaze,
relative to direct eye gaze, is not only a signal of low relational value, but also engenders a
genuine ostracism experience.
The first two studies demonstrate that eye gaze can communicate relational evaluation,
with those receiving averted eye gaze reporting low relational evaluation and greater feelings of
ostracism, relative to direct eye gaze. This experience of being excluded and ignored is powerful,
as are its motivational, evaluative, and affective sequelae, with effect sizes for even this brief
computerized rejection ranging from moderate to large (see Tables 1 and 2). Leary’s Sociometer
hypothesis (1999a, 1999b; Leary & Baumeister, 2000; Leary & Downs, 1995) contends that
changes in self-esteem are some of the primary manifestations of feelings of relational
evaluation. That is, self-esteem acts as a barometer of our current level of social inclusion. High
self-esteem is feedback to the self that we have been included. Lowered self-esteem is feedback
that we have been rejected or ostracized (and that perhaps palliative action is needed). In line
with this Sociometer hypothesis, in both of our previous studies participants self-reported lower
self-esteem following averted, relative to direct eye gaze.
Unlike the previous studies, Study 3 investigated whether averted eye gaze reduces
implicit self-esteem, relative to direct eye gaze. Implicit self-esteem captures self-evaluative
associations (e.g., Greenwald, Banaji, Rudman, Farnham, Nosek, & Mellott, 2002) or the
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 22
associative strength of links between the mental representation of one’s “self” and evaluative
content. For example, a version of the self-esteem Implicit Association Test (IAT; Pinter &
Greenwald, 2005) might pair words associated with the self (e.g., I, me, self) with evaluative
words (e.g., cheer, happy, death, filth). The facility with which these pairings are made is
indicative of positive and negative associations with the self. If averted eye gaze generates a
genuine experience of ostracism, this should not only affect participants’ explicit self-esteem, but
also at least temporarily change their implicit evaluative associations with the self. As such, we
hypothesize that averted eye gaze will result in lower implicit self-esteem, relative to direct eye
Participants and Design
Twenty nine (22 females) undergraduate students participated as part of a college course.
Participants’ average age was 18.7 (SD=1.03) years and most were Caucasian (89.7%).
Participants completed the same mental visualization task as in Studies 1 and 2.
After providing informed consent, participants were seated in individual laboratory
cubicles containing a computer. All instructions, stimulus presentation, and data collection was
conducted on the computer. Participants first completed the same visualization task as in the
previous two studies, in which they were randomly assigned to either receive direct or averted
eye gaze from a male or female computer avatar.
Following the mental visualization task, participants completed the same manipulation
check as in the previous studies. All participants then completed an ostensibly unrelated speeded
word categorization task, which was actually the self-esteem IAT. The stimuli for the self-esteem
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 23
IAT were taken directly from Pinter and Greenwald (2005). Following the completion of this
implicit self-esteem measure, participants provided some demographic information, were
thanked for their participation and were debriefed.
Implicit Self-Esteem Measure
All participants completed a seven-block IAT designed to assess participants’ implicit
self-esteem. The IAT was composed of 180 trials across the seven blocks; 20 in Blocks 1 and 2
(practice for concept and attribute classifications), 20 in Block 5 (reversal of the concept
classification), 20 in Blocks 3 and 6 (the practice combined task blocks), and 40 in Blocks 4 and
7 (the test combined-blocks).
Each trial consisted of the appropriate category heading depending on the experimental
block (i.e., self/positive words vs. other/negative words). A word from one of the categories was
presented on the screen and would remain on the screen until participants made the appropriate
response for that trial (using the ‘E’ and ‘I’ keys on the keyboard, respectively). There were five
words representing pleasant attributes (cheer, happy, health, laughter, and peace), five words
representing unpleasant attributes (death, filth, jail, murder, and sickness), five words
representing the concept of self (I, me, my, mine and self), and five words representing the
concept of other (others, they, them, their, and theirs; Pinter & Greenwald, 2005).
Participants were required to correct errors in order to continue onto the next trial and
response latencies were recorded on each trial. The order of the combined-task blocks was
counterbalanced so that each of the two orders of the IAT occurred equally often across the
Results and Discussion
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 24
Participants in the averted eye gaze condition indicated their interaction partner looked
directly at them less frequently (M=33.9% of the interaction, SD=25.1) than did participants in
the direct eye gaze condition (M=78.4%, SD=16.4), t(27)=-5.71, p<.001, d=2.12, indicating
again that participants were aware of whether they were subjected to direct or averted eye gaze.
Implicit Self-Esteem Analyses
Before analyzing the IAT data, we followed the procedures outlined by Greenwald and
colleagues (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) for preparing the data; we dropped the first
two trials of each block, we recoded latencies less than 300 ms as 300 ms and latencies greater
than 3,000 ms as 3,000 ms, and we used a logarithmic transformation to normalize the
distribution of latencies.2 We then computed participants’ average response latency on congruent
trials (i.e., self-good, other-bad) and incongruent trials (i.e., self-bad, other-good). Because
higher implicit self-esteem would be reflected in faster responding on congruent rather than
incongruent trials, we subtracted each participant’s congruent score from their incongruent score,
which yielded an implicit self-esteem IAT score where higher numbers indicate greater implicit
self-esteem (i.e., faster responding on congruent as opposed to incongruent trials).
Preliminary analyses once again did not find the effect of eye gaze on implicit self-
esteem to be qualified by interactions with either participant or target sex, ps>.2.
Consistent with our hypothesis, participants in the averted eye gaze condition displayed
significantly lower implicit self-esteem (M=141.7 ms, SD=195.9) than did participants in the
direct eye gaze condition (M=298.9 ms, SD=168.9), t(27)=-2.29, p=.03, d=.85. Mentally
visualizing a social interaction with an interaction partner displaying averted eye gaze led to
lower implicit self-esteem, relative to direct eye contact.
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 25
Across three studies we demonstrated the deleterious effects of receiving averted eye gaze
during a social interaction. Individuals who received averted eye gaze reported feeling
ostracized, excluded and ignored. Moreover, they also experienced lower satisfaction of basic
human needs, and more negative moods and emotions, relative to direct eye gaze participants.
Our experimental manipulation of averted eye gaze produced the negative feelings participants
reported feeling in response to the silent treatment (Williams et al., 1998). Furthermore, averted
eye gaze produced emotional (e.g., Buckley et al., 2004) and behavioral (e.g., Warburton et al.,
2006) consequences typical of individuals who have been more explicitly rejected (e.g., Buckley
et al., 2004; Leary et al., 2001; Williams et al., 2000). Specifically, we found those who received
averted eye gaze felt more anger, hurt feelings, sadness, and less happiness compared to those
who received direct eye contact. Failing to receive eye contact from another individual
engendered more temptations to perform aggressive behaviors that could harm their interaction
partner. Such aggression may re-establish a sense of control (e.g., Warburton et al., 2006),
especially in the current studies where a chance for re-affiliation is not afforded. Finally,
participants in the averted eye gaze condition experienced this as a form of devaluation as well, a
signal that they were held in low esteem. Ultimately, even being briefly subjected to the averted
eye gaze of another (even a computerized other) appears to beget feelings of ostracism and low
What is particularly noteworthy is the degree to which self-esteem is reduced stemming
from averted eye gaze. Not only did participants report explicitly feeling lowered self-esteem
after receiving averted compared to direct eye contact, but participants also displayed lowered
implicit self-esteem. Implicit self-esteem is argued to be relatively less accessible to conscious
awareness and is distinct from explicit self-esteem (Gailliot & Schmeichel, 2006), suggesting
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 26
that the reduction in self-esteem due to averted eye gaze does not appear to be a strategic or
intentional response. Thus, our results are also consistent with the Sociometer hypothesis (Leary,
1999a, 1999b); that is, participants’ self-esteem, both explicit and implicit, was powerfully
determined by the experience of direct relative to averted eye gaze.
Our findings are also consistent with past research demonstrating that eye gaze is a
powerful regulator of ongoing social interactions. Insofar as averted eye gaze can signal
exclusion, even brief flashes of averted eye gaze may be a sufficient signal of opprobrium to
elicit a change in behavior. Thus, not only is gaze aversion a signal of disinterest in a
conversational topic (Richmond et al., 2008), but according to our findings averted gaze is even a
signal of disdain and social exclusion, relative to direct gaze. The signal of social exclusion was
detected despite the fact averted eye gaze is a passive form of social exclusion (implicit, indirect)
based on the criteria established by Molden Lucas, Gardner, Dean, and Knowles (2009).3
Indeed, given that our social monitoring systems are generally quite sensitive to signals of
rejection, being able to send relatively subtle signals of social exclusion with one’s eyes may
actually serve to regulate ongoing interaction effectively without necessitating more overt means
of social exclusion. In this same vein, the relative subtlety of such eye gaze cues may explain
why individuals who are cognitively, developmentally or otherwise unable to extract eye gaze
signals may experience social dysregulation (e.g., Dalton et al., 2005). They may simply be
insensitive to a commonplace signal of relational evaluation that otherwise serves to regulate
Although we have found across all three experiments that averted relative to direct eye
gaze leads to feelings of ostracism, there are some limitations in our studies which temper our
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 27
conclusions. First, it is important to note that we do not argue that direct and averted gaze will
always function in this manner, across contexts. Indeed, direct eye gaze is a signal of approach
and averted eye gaze is associated with avoidance (see Argyle & Cook, 1976; Marsh, Ambady,
& Kleck, 2005), but exactly how approach and avoidance play out in a situation depends
critically on other situational cues. In our experiment, participants were engaged in a faux
interaction with the computerized target, in a relatively low threat, mundane setting. In this
context, direct eye gaze typically signals friendliness or affiliation (Kleinke, 1986; van Hooff,
1972). However, in other contexts, direct eye gaze can communicate threat or dominance
(Argyle & Cook, 1976; Redican, 1982), whereas averted gaze (especially downward gaze) may
convey submission (e.g., Lorenz, 1966; van Hooff, 1967). How eye gaze is interpreted is
certainly a function of contextual cues, such as the expression of an emotion (Argyle & Cook,
1976), and vice versa. For example, individuals are faster to recognize approach-related
expressions (anger and joy) when they are displayed with direct eye gaze. Avoidance-related
expressions (fear and sadness) are better recognized when concurrently displayed with averted
eye gaze (Adams & Kleck, 2003). This implies that changing the relationship between the
participant and the avatar (e.g., a competitive relationship) may change how direct and averted
gaze is interpreted.
Beyond this contextual variability in the meaning of direct and averted eye gaze, it is also
the case that our gaze effects must be interpreted as relative effects. Because we included only a
direct and averted gaze condition, without a ‘no avatar’ control, our findings may be a result of
positive effects of direct eye gaze signaling acceptance, averted gaze signaling rejection, or some
combination of the two. Because of this, it may be worthwhile to look at past ostracism research
to address this issue. Early ostracism research used an in-person ball-toss paradigm in which the
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 28
degree participants were included depended on the number of balls confederates tossed to the
participant (see Kerr, Seok, Poulsen, Harris, & Messe, 2008; Williams & Sommer, 1997). A no
ball-toss control group was included to compare basic need levels of ostracized and included
participants. These studies found basic need satisfaction levels of included participants in the
ball-toss game did not differ from those in the control condition, suggesting need level changes
were due to ostracism. Recently, researchers (Wesselmann, Bagg, & Williams, 2009) found
ostracism is powerful enough to threaten basic need satisfaction by simply watching another
individual be ostracized. A control condition, (Cyberball naïve participants), found these
participants had higher levels of basic need satisfaction than those watching someone be
included and someone being ostracized. The negative response to watching ostracism appears to
be due to the ostracism condition thwarting, rather than inclusion elevating basic need
satisfaction. Thus, without a control condition, it is difficult to infer whether the current effects
are due to inclusion. However, past research has consistently found that similar effects are driven
by ostracism, rather than by the experience of social inclusion.
Finally, it is also worth noting that the self-esteem IAT effects in our third experiment
must also be understood as relative effects. The IAT is designed to create a relative measure of
association strength (Greenwald & Farnham, 2000). In our case, we measured the strength of
self-positive, relative to other-negative associations. This makes it difficult to infer whether the
reductions in implicit self-esteem are due to reductions in positive associations with the self or an
increase in negative associations of others. One clue may come from the explicit measures in
Study 2 in which we found both effects emerging. Participants receiving averted eye gaze
reported having less self-esteem than participants receiving direct eye gaze participants.
Moreover, participants felt averted gaze was an attempt to treat them negatively (i.e., convey a
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 29
low relationship evaluation) and to be antisocial. Thus, it may be that participants receiving
averted eye gaze felt both a decrease in positive self-associations and more negative associations
Although the current research clearly indicates that averted relative to direct eye gaze
creates the experience of ostracism, there are certainly a number of open questions generated by
the current work. One clear question is whether the experience of lowered relational evaluation is
the cause or the result of feelings of rejection. That is, does feeling low in the esteem of others
create the feeling of rejection, or vice versa? Buckley et al. (2004) suggest that individuals’ first
experience lowered relational evaluation, which then prompts feelings of rejection. However,
mediational tests done to investigate causal order of these effects in Study 2 were inconclusive.4
Thus, the causal sequence of these phenomena still remains an open question.
Second, the current research only employed computerized avatars, rather than actual
interaction partners. It thus remains an open question as to whether averted eye gaze from an
actual person would elicit similar effects. Although this choice of a computerized confederate
may open the current research to critique, we believe it serves as a real strength. First, it ensures
that the experience of participants across and within conditions is identical except for the
differential eye gaze. Thus, the amount of time the confederate faces the participant, facial angle,
and other stimulus features are held perfectly constant. Second, this procedure indicates that the
effects of exclusion occur even when participants know with certainty that they are pre-
determined to receive the pre-programmed averted eye gaze of the confederate (see Zadro et al.,
2004 for similar effects). Finally, although the computer is pre-programmed, there is good reason
to believe that participants treat such stimuli as social stimuli. First, the mere presence of eyes on
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 30
a target or characteristics that resemble eyes leads individuals to treat a target as social (e.g.,
Senju & Hasegawa, 2006; Windhager et al., 2008). Second, characters in clearly uni-directional
media such as television are treated as social agents, and engage the same social-cognitive
processes that are observed for ‘actual’ people (e.g., Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009).
Thus, it seems a reasonable assumption that the effects of averted eye gaze from a true
confederate would have similar if not stronger effects.
A final question concerns the sequence of averted eye gaze used in our studies. In the
averted gaze condition, the computerized movie confederate provided direct eye gaze for 30
seconds before averting eye gaze for the remainder of the movie. Thus, it remains an open
question as to whether experiencing averted eye gaze for the entire duration would elicit
similarly strong effects. It seems plausible that receiving an initial orientation from others, before
receiving averted eye gaze may be a more powerful rejection experience than never receiving
attention in the first place. In fact, Buckley et al. (2004) found participants who experienced
increasing amounts of rejection felt worse than those who were constantly rejected. Thus,
receiving another individual’s attention, and then losing it, may be more aversive than never
having received it in the first place. Directly testing this hypothesis in future research may help
to further articulate how the attention or inattention of others can signal relational evaluation.
Direct and averted eye gaze are powerful signals of relational evaluation, and means of
including and ostracizing others. Even briefly subjecting participants to averted eye gaze from a
computerized confederate, relative to direct eye gaze, led participants to feel ostracized and to
show the effects attendant to ostracism: lowered satisfaction of basic human needs, lowered
experience of relational evaluation, more negative moods, lower self-esteem, and enhanced
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 31
temptations to act aggressively. Moreover, participants understood averted eye gaze as intending
to ostracize and send a signal that the relationship or interaction is low in value. Finally, the
effectiveness of averted eye gaze may explain why it is the most frequent behavior reported
(even more than silence) when attempting to give others the silent treatment.
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 32
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James Wirth,
Psychological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907 (e-mail:
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 41
1 We thank Bruce Hood for providing the eye gaze face stimuli.
2 Data from IAT practice blocks were not recorded. Therefore, we cannot utilize the updated
scoring algorithm for the IAT (Greenwald, Nosek, & Banaji, 2003).
3 In Study 2, we found averted eye gazed produced feelings of sadness, but not anxiety, which
according to Molden et al. (2009) is a characteristic response of passive social exclusion.
4 Mediational tests done to investigate causal order of our effect found relational evaluation
mediates the relationship between eye gaze direction and feelings of ostracism (Sobel’s z =
2.43, p = .02). However, the reverse mediation is also significant. Feelings of ostracism
mediate the relationship between eye gaze direction and relational evaluation (Sobel’s z =
2.93, p < .01).
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 42
Figure 1. Example stimuli used in creating the movies. The faces are printed with the permission
of Bruce Hood.
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 43
Table 1. Statistics for Study 1 feelings of ostracism, basic need satisfaction, and mood.
Mean direct eye
Mean averted eye
p = .006
p < .001
Basic need satisfaction
p = .03
p = .01
p = .82
p = .03
p = .03
p = .20
p = .02
Note: Scales ranged from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much).
Eye Gaze as Relational Evaluation 44
Table 2. Statistics for Study 2 feelings of ostracism, basic need satisfaction, mood, relational
evaluation, and perceived esteem.
Mean direct eye
Mean averted eye
p < .001
p < .001
Basic need satisfaction
p < .001
p = .002
p = .001
p = .02
p < .001
p = .16
p = .03
p = .07
p = .03
p = .03
p = .14
p = .003
p = .002
p < .001
Note: Scales ranged from 1 (Not at all) to 5 (Very much).