How can we tell when someone is looking at us?

I was just in a long line, looking at a life-sized cardboard cutout of someone, and noticing that I could easily tell they were looking directly at me (well, the camera that took the photo).

So, I got to thinking, How does my brain recognize that someone is looking me directly in the eye, even a cardboard cutout of someone.

Could it be that we can tell when there are equal amounts of white around the iris? No, because you can still tell if someone’s face is angled away from you, yet they’re still looking right at you.

I really don’t know what the visual cues are that allow me to instantly know if someone is looking me right in the eyes, and not a few feet to either side.

What’s the Straight Dope?

I thought this was going to be a question about how we can uncannily tell when someone is staring at the back of our heads :slight_smile:

I’m not sure of the answer to this but I remember seeing a kids art program on T.V., some child had written in and asked how to draw eyes on a cartoon that seem to follow you around the room, the answer was to draw the dot for the pupil directly in the center of the eye. Perhaps the answer to your question lies along the same lines but that is just a WAG.

I mentioned this in a GQ thread somewhere else, but what really fries my brain is making eye-contact via reflection. The common scenario for me is, facing the right side of the train, looking at the doors. There is usually someone facing the left side of the train, looking at the doors. Because we can see each other’s reflections, we can make eye contact. What my poor addled mind can’t quite grasp is how I know that someone else’s reflection is looking at my reflection.


But you can’t always tell for sure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered why in the heck that strange person was waving at me, only to find that they were waving at someone behind/beside me. At least I never waved back!

Oh, and one time my ex-boyfriend and I were eating dinner at a local seafood joint, and I noticed he was getting aggravated and that he was glaring at a woman who was sitting at another table. Finally I asked him what was wrong, and he said that the woman just kept staring at him and that he thought she was incredibly rude.

I gently informed him that he was sitting directly in front of the “catch of the day” board.

Alright, from across the room I can understand confusion. But it still doesn’t get at the real question. What exactly tells us that someone is looking directly (or almost directly) at us?

I can’t give you an answer, but there’s definitely some error involved. Your mind seems to assume anything within a fairly large range counts as “being looked at”. We’ve all thought somebody is looking straight at us, when they’re actually looking over our shoulder. Or experienced that teacher who has the uncanny ability to stare directly at everyone in the classroom.

Here’s something of an explanation from :

Indeed it is in fact that factor of error that allows TV camera teleprompters to work. As long as the scrolling words are next to the camera, it appears as if the news anchorman (or whatever) is looking directly into the camera.

Find me someone who works for a teleprompter manufacturer, and I’ll show you someone who has access to a lot of research to answer the OP!

I believe that it is common in modern times to use the sort of setup described here where a one-way mirror is used to allow the words to be read to be placed directly infront of the lens of the camera without obscuring the view.