The Sense of Being Stared At (in the car)

As we’re on the topic of curious psychological effects, have you ever, as a passenger in a car, stared to the side, at a driver in the neighboring lane, and suddenly had them turn to face you?

This is a game I sometimes play when bored in the back of a taxi, and it can be quite disconcerting. I have often wondered: Am I simply remembering with greater frequency and fidelity those times when somebody actually looked back, and forgetting all the times they didn’t, invoking a sort of memory bias (e.g., because I think that people stare back I am primed to remember the times they actually do)?

The rogue psychologist Rupert Sheldrake has explored the “eyes in the back of the head” phenomenon (or what he calls the “non-visual detection of vision”) in his book The Sense of Being Stared At, which has occasioned a good amount of critical commentary. But, as Sheldrake has noted, the feeling that this sense exists is quite strong:

Most people have had the experience of turning round feeling that someone is looking at them from behind, and finding that this is the case. Most people have also had the converse experience. They can sometimes make people turn around by staring at them. In surveys in Europe and North America, between 70% and 97% of the people questioned said they had had personal experiences of these kinds (Braud et al., 1990; Sheldrake, 1994; Cottrell et al., 1996).

When I do in this car, of course, I am more properly considered to be alongside the other person, or just behind, so it’s perhaps not as much as a “non-visual” detection as a peripheral detection. But still, it seems quite powerful — what would make someone take their eyes off the road and return my glance? (another proviso here is that they may simply have been turning to look at my car, out of idle curiosity). Is it some primitive apparatus for detecting hazards? Is it that incredibly powerful ability we humans have (and which the non-human primates do not) to detect, and make, eye contact?

What’s interesting too is what happens once that driver in the other lane meets my eyes. Often, they look a bit startled, or uncomfortable, and I myself try to look away, having been uncomfortably caught out. This too has been examined by psychologists, as this piece in Scientific American notes:

In one version of the experiment, the research assistant pulled up in his motor scooter next to a car waiting at a red light and stared expressionlessly at the driver until the light turned green. In another version, the research assistant stood on the street corner, turned to face an approaching pedestrian, and again stared expressionlessly at this person’s face for an uncomfortable length of time.

As predicted, being stared at prompted people to ‘flee’ measurably faster than not being stared at. In the case of the motor scooter, car drivers who were in the staring condition stepped on the gas pedal harder when the light turned green than those in the control condition, as measured by the length of time it took them to cross the intersection. Likewise, pedestrians who were stared at also picked up their step.

In any case, I’m curious to hear from readers: Do you ever notice this effect? Are there any other explanations I’ve left out?

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 at 10:48 am and is filed under Etc., Traffic Culture, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “The Sense of Being Stared At (in the car)”

  1. techne Says:

    IME the deciding factor is motion. When you turn your head in someone’s peripheral vision, they notice it and look, but by the time they look your head is not moving, so it looks like they have been staring at you when really they were caught in a glance. I played with this once by keeping my head stationary facing parallel cars–that is, I looked at people without moving my own head–and nobody looked. That is consistent with what neuroscientists know about the visual system. So I guess that would make it a “primitive apparatus for detecting hazards.”

  2. MattG Says:

    I am going to respectfully disagree with the above poster to the extent that it is possible to detect being “stared at” without any visual cues. Where’s my empirical evidence, you ask? I’d like you to meet my charming daughters…

    They will both pad silently into my room and stare at me until I wake up and look at them. The older one has frequently told me that she doesn’t say anything aloud because she “doesn’t want to wake up Mom.” How can I know she’s there? I suppose that I should ask her how often I fail to wake up, but I can’t imagine that she would leave until after she got her glass of water and tucked back in.

  3. Lee Hanna Says:

    I’ve noticed this in church, of all places. I will be looking at the altar– where the action is–, and someone in the row in front of me might turn around. My eyes are drawn to look at their face, and that seems to draw them to look at me. We both quickly glance away, of course.

  4. DavidM Says:

    I suspect the “feel someone staring at you” sense is most likely peripheral vision outside of our concious attention. But I think the reason we respond so viscerally to someone staring at us likely goes back to our genetic heritage as a “prey” animal. A face with two forward set eyes staring intently at you likely means a predator has locked on to you as a target. The fact that they are looking at you from the side or behind further emphasizes that this is not a ‘friendly’ stare.

    Specific to the car experience, we do seem to have an inflated sense of anonymity when we’re in a car. When a pedestrian or passenger in another car suddenly locks eyes with us, there is that awkward sensation that people can see you when you thought they could not. Especially when they’re staring at you because you just cut them off!

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