Chapter 5: The Significance of Staring

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.


4 thoughts on “Chapter 5: The Significance of Staring

  1. dgromels says:

    Sarah, I am really sorry we didn’t get to talk about your research in class because I find this to be a fascinating point of inquiry. I think you could come at this topic from a number of different angles, and you laid some good groundwork for the psychological take on staring. I also loved your reference to “The Big Bang Theory,” as it is one of my favorite shows! After reading the reference, I was surprised you decided to focus on the discomfort we feel when we notice someone staring at us, but it is certainly a sensation we have all experienced. Why do you think this makes us uncomfortable? I wonder if we are just socially conditioned to feel that way, especially since many of us are constantly reminded that “staring is rude” by our parents, or if there is some type of deeper biological reasoning behind it. The researchers in the study you reference say staring might be related to dominance or violence, so if you continue with this topic that would be a great question to explore.

    In some situations, I think the feeling of discomfort might have something to do with the association of staring with love or attraction like Penny and Sheldon theorized on “Big Bang.” When someone catches you staring at them, it creates an embarrassing situation for both parties because often there seems to be an assumption that the stare was due to attraction. In my psychology class, we learned that people, even babies, stare longer at objects and people they find beautiful. I found an article, “Staring us in the face? An embodied theory of innate face preference” on the Atkins Library website if you find this line of research interesting. You could also expand your question to include other elements of courtship or even other human behaviors that result in tension and how we then resolve the tension.


  2. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hey Sarah,

    I wish you were able to discuss this in class as well! Was afraid I took too much time at the end. I like that you included those separate studies on staring. I think the reactions we have with staring are probably a mixture of both cultural and biological reasons. I came across an interesting study on prolonged staring which yielded weird results. Individuals were placed in a low lit room with a stranger sitting across from them, and they had to stare into their eyes for 10 full minutes. Then they took a survey afterwards describing the event, which was characterized as having more intense colors, sounds seemed “louder or quieter” than they should have, and time slowed to what felt like an eternity. Over 90% stated that the strangers face started to look deformed, and 75% states they morphed into a monster. Half said they saw their own faces in them overtime, and 15% said they saw the faces of their loved ones. Now this is taking your study to an extreme as the conditions required to stare at someone staring at you and standing still for 10 minutes doesn’t just happen out in public all that often if ever. Although I wonder how that can relate to perhaps a certain reason behind why we find stares in general uncomfortable or perhaps the human eye and brain just doesn’t know how to deal with that kind of information as it just doesn’t occur in nature. Similar to the blind spot in the eye perhaps?

    You could maybe extend this research to how different cultures view eye contact length in general? In Western societies it is deemed necessary to make eye contact with individuals who you are talking to. While Middle Eastern nations have men wanting women to make less because it comes off as a “romantic” interest. Many Asian cultures view it as a sign of disrespect if you make eye contact with those above you. African and Latin American cultures find prolonged eye contact as a form of aggression.

    – Bekim


  3. annawallace003 says:

    You topic was by far one of the most interesting posts that I have read so far. As I was reading Bel Canto, the stare off between Gen ad Carmen made me feel somewhat uncomfortable despite the fact that I wasn’t even involved. Staring is a concept that I feel like people usually doesn’t think too much about however, when it does occur it seems impossible to escape. It just kind of happens and people continue on with their day so the fact that you were able to find studies that break down the science behind staring was a great asset to your research! Specifically, the study performed by J. Merrill Carlsmith was really able to catch my attention. The study was able to gather information that could easily be used to pursue this topic a step further. If you do decide to pursue this topic again, I might suggest redirecting my focus on the social aspect. When walking around campus, we pass hundreds of people everyday resulting in a multitude of chances to make eye contact and/or accidently finding oneself staring into the eyes of a complete stranger. Making these connections at times can be extremely awkward and I would be curious to see what type of information is out there regarding the social aspect and relating it back to what you originally researched. I feel like it would also be easy to create your own study and compare it to what others have found. You have done a great job pursuing this topic and I hope that what I said earlier is of help.



  4. hcelemen says:

    I agree with everyone in that this post was highly irresistible to ignore. At the end of Chapter 5, the stares that Gen and Carmen shared had me confused and slightly uncomfortable at the prospect that Carmen might be too young for Gen. Carmen and the other young terrorists are constantly being referred to as “young, girl, or boy”. When I read that and the hostages’ reaction towards them, I think of children that have barely even reached their adolescence. It came as a great surprise when Carmen revealed that she is in fact 17. Hence, I deemed the obvious attraction between Gen and Carmen somewhat inappropriate.

    I always thought that staring is an intimate thing that can be shared with someone close to you as a way to communicate with them. So I find it very disconcerting when I notice someone staring at me. In my first post about Japanese etiquettes, staring was one of the things the Japanese found rude. However, I was never able to find out why they felt this way and your post was a great segway to answering the cultural explanation for this etiquette. You mentioned that based on your findings, “humans are hard-wired psychologically to notice and be affected by a stare” and therefore make us “feel compelled to action”. Do you think that something as simple as prolonged eye contact, an often misused tool for connecting, is also a way to instill empathy in the recipient of the stare?

    I believe that there is so much emotion you can express in a stare, no matter how brief it may last. Maybe this is why we feel so uncomfortable with it. Most of us have been brought up to express ourselves through our words or through music yet making eye contact is such a difficult thing to do. I think you will find a video I’ve seen very interesting. There is an artist named Marina Abramovi, who sat quietly on a chair and had strangers sit in front of her as they stared openly at each other in her art piece called “The Artist is Present.” (Here is the link to this video No words were ever spoken between them yet the people who came up and stared at her would have faces of deep concentration, confusion, wonderment, or amusement. But what left an impression on me about this video is the reaction on her face and the other man as she realizes it’s actually her former lover, Ulay, sitting across from her. Their face changes into a series of expressions, as though they’re having a conversation in their own language. Yet as the viewer, you can understand and discern when the emotions flowing between them. After seeing this, I felt like I was invading in something private and intimate. Why do we have such an aversion to staring or eye contact when it can produce such a strong and meaningful connection? Is it just a matter of getting desensitized to staring? And if we kept making eye contact, would we form stronger bonds and lasting impressions on others or would it lose it’s meaning?


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