Nov 16, 2010

The Feeling of Being Stared At

When I started this blog I was intending to spend more time "researching" (i.e., web-surfing) varied questions and phenomena in the worlds of science, economics and psychology. Then I quickly found that (a) I have no time, and (b) there are thousands of people out there doing this already. Also (c) my knowlege in these areas is even more limited than I thought, and I have a fear of posting about something that it turns out I have completely misunderstood or missed reams of research which has resolved any questions I thought were still outstanding.  It's a long time since I was in the halls of academia...

Case in point:
One of the things that has intrigued me for years is that thing where you "feel" someone watching you, look up and see someone staring at you, or vice versa.

Image: Graur Codrin,

My mother alerted me to this when I was a kid; she told me that when she was a teenager hanging out with her friends if one of them liked a boy they had a trick where they would stare at the back of his head and he would turn around.

This has interested me for years, because it sort of makes sense (evolutionary advantage, awareness of predators etc) and most people have experienced it, but there also seems no physical explanation for it. It's not like you can be picking up subliminal cues* of any kind, unless you are facing a mirror.
Another interesting point is that it only seems to "work" when people are not distracted on things that require a lot of concentration - no matter how much you stare at someone arguing on a telephone or watching the last stretch of a horse race, you will not "make" them turn around.

I had not come across any articles or books on this or even any mention of it in studies in other things, and I wasn't sure how to search to find if any research had been done.

Obviously I hadn't thought to Google "the feeling of being stared at".

Because it turns out there has been lots of research on this (see here and here) and while "the jury is out" to some degree, the non-fringe consensus is that this "phenomenon" has been debunked.

I came across the fact of this research while reading a fantastic book, The Invisible Gorilla (Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, Harper Collins 2010). In the chapter "Get Smart Quick!" they assert that this belief, held by 65% of people, has been "thoroughly debunked" with research going back to 1898. Who knew?!

I'm a bit torn here. Logically speaking I do love a debunking - if it's done well and out of good scientific intentions and not gleeful vindictiveness.
And it's always embarassing to be caught out believing something weird for which there is a simple and natural explanation. (The Invisible Gorilla puts belief in this phenomenon in the same chapter as beliefs about brain training, the Mozart effect and the belief that we only use 10% of our brains. Not great finding yourself in that company).

On the other hand... like a lot of people, I feel like I have tried this and found it to work.
I know it's easy to believe something using selective memory especially when the belief is a seductive one (handy skill, to know when being watched). But still it's hard to resist the feeling that this is a real thing.

Clearly I need to re-experiment with my new perspective and keep a faithful tally of the times people don't turn around, or all the times I look up and don't lock eyes with someone staring at my head.

I shall repair to the lab and report back in due course...

Interesting footnote -
*Just today I came across some research in a related topic, which DOES have a logical, "subliminal cues" explanation: "gaze-following".
There is an interesting post about this on the ScienceBlogs site, about Gaze-Following in Red Footed Tortoises


  1. (scratches chin), hmmmmm..... you've raised something I've never even pondered before but I might try this staring at the backs of heads malarkey today on the tram. Anything to liven up the ride...

  2. I woul love to hear how this goes. So far I can report that it does NOT work while driving on the freeway ; )



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...