The fifth chapter of Anne Patchett’s masterpiece, Bel Canto, brings to light the nascent relationship between Gen and Carmen. Before we are introduced to Carmen as the girl that she is, all we know of their interactions is that Gen feels an unease caused by the presence of the beautiful “boy.” In this particular chapter, we see not only their rather intense connection through prolonged eye contact or the beginning conversations that cement an agreement between them, but also the reason behind Carmen’s initiation of contact. Carmen wishes to better her literacy by learning to read, write, and speak Spanish and English. Carmen, who is too shy to directly ask this of Gen at first, causes a sort of stare-off that is noticed also by Messner. Messner is the one to break the silence because Gen is too unsure of himself to go ask Carmen what it is she wants.
This lengthy eye contact, which we know is truly long because it draws Messner’s notice, seems to be highly uncomfortable for both people involved. There were things both wanted their looks to convey without having to speak. This situation reminded me of an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which two characters set out to determine whether prolonged amounts of time spent staring into each other’s eyes provoke a love connection, as proposed in a certain study. How much can a stare really reveal? Why does it make us uncomfortable? These are the questions I sought to explore and answer in my research this week.
In a series of field tests conducted by J. Merrill Carlsmith and associates at Stanford University, staring was tested as a stimulus to flight. The methods for these experiments were designed to test staring, no-staring, and incongruous behaviors of a young lady sitting at a stoplight. Drivers of various ages and sexes were timed as they drove away from the stoplight in each situation. The staring condition proved highly significant, as there was less variation in this group of crossing time at the light and this group drove off at a much faster average than the other two groups (Carlsmith, p. 4). The results of the experiment seemed to indicate that staring caused an avoidance reaction in those perceiving the stare.
One thing that really interested me in the results of these experiments was that the length of the stare had relatively no significant effect on the drive-off time of those in the stare group. It was the mere perception of being stared at that would cause the drivers to avert eye contact, fidget, become involved in other nervous behavior, and speed off when the light changed (Carlsmith, p. 9). One hypothesis of causation voiced by the experimenters was that staring indicates a basic threat of violence or dominance, like in primates (Carlsmith, p. 10). However, the person performing the staring maintained a neutral expression other than the stare. This theory also does not account for any of the myths pertaining to staring as evidence of a connection of affection. As such, I find more their second hypothesis more reliable. It suggests that a stare has “interpersonal implications which cannot be ignored,” and that is “a demand for a response” (Carlsmith, p. 10).
Phoebe C. Ellsworth and Ellen J. Langer conducted an experiment aimed to test the former experiment’s second hypothesis, including that “in a situation where there is no appropriate response” to a stare, “tension will be evoked” (Carlsmith, p. 10). The method they used to test this idea was by delivering a message for help varying in ambiguity or clarity and having the person for which the plea was given alternating staring and not staring at the subjects. Generally, they found that the level of ambiguity had a profound effect on whether the subject would offer help. Staring or not staring did not have a significant effect on whether help was offered, probably because humans seek to avoid a difficult ambiguous situation anyhow (Ellsworth, p. 5). In the no-stare condition, the percentage of people who helped was close to half in either ambiguous or clear trial runs. However, 83% of subjects helped when the messenger was clear what the problem was and when the person pretending to have a problem was staring (Ellsworth, p. 4).
The results of this second experiment seem to indicate that the context in which a stare is given determines what sort of reaction, whether one of avoidance or attraction, is elicited (Ellsworth, p. 5). There is this idea that seems to be indicated at some level by both experiments that humans are hard-wired psychologically to notice and be affected by a stare. Stares, though they cause one to feel tension and discomfort when this is the case, cannot reveal much on their own. They need behavioral context, whether given through body language or vocal statements, to demonstrate their meaning. They seem to cause us to generally feel compelled to action, including to help when there is clarity in appropriate response. This can even be interpreted as arousal in some cases.
Carlsmith, Merrill J., Phoebe C. Ellsworth, and Alexander Henson. “The Stare as a Stimulus in Human Subjects: A Series of Field Experiments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21.3 (March 1972): 302-311. PsycARTICLES. Web. Sept. 30 2015.
Ellsworth, Phoebe C. and Ellen J. Langer. “Staring and Approach: An Interpretation of the Stare as a Nonspecific Activator.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 33.1 (Jan. 1976): 117-122. PsycARTICLES. Web. Sept. 30 2015.