Psychological Science

Wesselmann, E.D., Cardoso, F.D., Slater, S., & Williams, K.D. (2012). To be looked at as though air: civil attention matters.Psychological Science, 23. 166-168.

Karina Maughan

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The authors of “To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters” conducted a study to prove that eye contact is a necessary proponent in producing a feeling of inclusion among our community. Baumeister and Leary say (as cited in Wesselmann, Cardoso, Slater, & Williams, 2012) that human beings need to feel included in our society or we will experience physical and psychological problems; because this is important for our survival, the article shows evidence that we have developed ways to detect signs of inclusion and exclusion, such as eye contact or lack thereof. Therefore, if there is a lack of eye contact we feel excluded. They use a German saying to convey their theory, “wie Luft behandeln,” which means, “to be looked at as though air.” The article says, “Even though one person looks in the general direction of another, no eye contact is made, and the latter feels invisible” (Wesselmann et al., 2012, p. 166). Wesselman et al. (2012) proposes that this lack of eye contact will induce a feeling of rejection and isolation. Wirth, Sacco, Hugenberg, and Williams (as cited in Wesselmann et al., 2012) support the claim that eye contact in fact signals inclusion and lack of signals exclusion with experimental data. Williams, Shore, and Grahe (as cited in Wesselmann et al., 2012) support the argument by noting that that people purposefully withhold eye contact as a technique to exclude others. And Williams, Govan, Wheeler, and Nezlek (as cited in Wesselmann et al., 2012) support this claim with their data that suggest that people feel this exclusion. Wesselman et al. (2012) set out to test whether eye contact with a stranger will decrease the feeling of social disconnection and when we are looked at “as though air” will increase this feeling. They also tested whether a smile was a necessary proponent in the process of creating a feeling of social inclusion.

They tested their theory using a field experiment. During this experiment they used a total of 317 bystanders walking in a well populated university campus, without distraction (194 men and 123 women). They used an experimenter and confederate to test and record data. A “confederate” is an individual that appears to be a participant but is a part of the research team (“confederate”). They are the independent variables, influencing the participants for the researcher to obtain data. As written in the article, they chose 282 bystanders for the confederate to test the independent variables and experimenter to survey, 239 of those bystanders were compliant and an additional 78 were surveyed as the control group. The “control group” receives no intervention by the variables presented by the confederate but were surveyed so that the research team had data to compare to their findings (“control group”). The 239 bystanders were each randomly assigned a variable by which they were tested then surveyed.

During the experiment the confederate was given three independent variables to test: the “air-gaze condition,” the “acknowledgement-only condition,” and the “acknowledgement-with-a-smile condition.” The article says the “air-gaze” condition was meant to test the (to be looked at as though air) theory. The confederate would maintain a neutral gaze toward the passerby at eye level but beyond the ear without eye contact. This was meant to make the passerby feel as though they were invisible and induce a feeling of disconnection. The “acknowledgement-only” condition would include only eye contact, and the “acknowledgment-with-a-smile” condition would include eye contact with a smile. The confederate would pass a bystander, initiate a condition, then give a thumbs up behind her back to signal an okay to survey. The experimenter, unaware of the condition used, would then ask the passerby two questions based on a 1-5 scale: “‘Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?’ (1 being not at all, 5 being very much) and ‘Within the last minute, have you experienced acknowledgement from a stranger?’ (Yes/no response)” (Wesselman et al., 2012, p. 167). They surveyed 76 with the “air-gaze condition,” 79 were acknowledged with simple eye contact, and 84 were acknowledged with a smile. The 78 control group were only asked the question of, “Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?” to provide a baseline.

The results of this experiment did conclude that eye contact does effect individuals. As hypothesized those who were acknowledged with eye contact or eye contact and a smile felt less disconnected from others, whereas those who were looked at with an empty stare felt more so. However, the difference between the two was not a considerable amount. The graph shows that there was a subtle change in the feeling of disconnect from those who received acknowledgement and the control group. Similarly, those who were looked at with an empty stare felt more disconnected but differentiated from the control group subtlety as well. The data does reflect that disconnect decreases with acknowledgement and increases when we are looked at “as though air” proving their hypothesis. Nevertheless, Wesselmann et al. (2012) state that, “The results of this field experiment add to the literature on minimal cues that convey inclusion and extends to a non-laboratory setting” (Wesselmann et al., 2012, p. 167). It is concluded that some people may not want to receive attention from others in a populated area and that eye contact and social queues are more important in other cultures and environments. Yes, eye contact helps to induce the feeling but also the passersby need to be aware to pick up these queues. In the experiment only 45.4% recognized the acknowledgement. In conclusion, the article states that eye contact aids in maintaining a sense of inclusion in our community but ultimately not all humans will welcome the acknowledgement.


Confederate. 2018. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from

Control Group. 2018. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from

Wesselmann, E.D., Cardoso, F.D., Slater, S., & Williams, K.D. (2012). To be looked at as though air: civil attention matters.Psychological Science, 23. 166-168.


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