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Why do we stare at ourselves on video calls?

(22 June 2020)

Aarron Toal, PhD Candidate, explores why we stare at ourselves on video calls.

Teams, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom: video sharing quickly became a lifeline for organisations as lockdown restrictions were imposed in many parts of the world, connecting colleagues and helping to keep businesses moving. These virtual conversations allowed us to attend team meetings and continue our work duties. It was suddenly instrumental in the working from home experience.

But why can we not stop staring at ourselves during a video call?

Whether intentional or not, no doubt your eyes have wandered over to the small front-facing camera screen at various points throughout a meeting. Have we become so vain in the online digital age that we are more interested in our own appearance, distracting us from the meeting taking place? Interpreting this particular behaviour from an evolutionary perspective and how we have evolved as a species may explain this vanity.

Evolved attention

Ever been in a loud room and even above the noise, thought you heard someone mention your name? Humans have evolved to automatically pay attention to information about themselves, which may have assisted with survival chances in our ancestral past. This subconscious, selective, self-attention ability allows the brain to focus on a particular stimulus whilst filtering out others. For example, being able to listen to one conversation in a very loud and busy room.

This ability is not just an auditory phenomenon, and there is evidence that suggests it can be visual too. A person’s sensory memory will separate different stimuli into different categories, and will focus on the ones that are most relevant to them. In this case, we’re tuning into the video that is most relevant to ourselves, which just happens to be our own front-facing one.

Evolved communication

Video calling provides us with the opportunity to do two things: look at ourselves and look at ourselves in comparison to others. We don’t ever get to see ourselves talking in real-time, and it takes time to adjust to this novelty as we are now able to evaluate our self-presentation of expressions instantly. The front-facing camera allows us to continuously check that we are looking our best, or to constantly evaluate ourselves (most notably our responses) to ensure that we are using the correct body language or facial expressions in conversation, such as nodding or smiling aggressively.

Humans are social creatures and we want to look our best and be accepted by the group, which has an evolutionary significance too. These instincts become heightened by seeing yourself, so you may find yourself engaging in over exaggerated body or facial expressions when communicating in a want for acceptance.

Furthermore, our self-esteem is affected by evaluating own performance, but also by the perception of how others are reacting too. People will actively portray themselves in a way that will elicit more positive self-esteem reactions from others to further ensure acceptance, and we’re able watch ourselves doing so. Think of it as applying an Instagram filter to ourselves and wanting ‘likes’ in real life.

Evolved presentation

In our quest to look the best we are critically comparing ourselves to others, such as how professional someone’s home office looks when we’re working at the dining room table, or how refreshed a colleague appears where we got dressed in a hurry due to other lockdown pressures, resulting in us fiddling with our appearance in the front-facing camera for the remainder of the call. To continue our Instagram analogy, it is the same self-criticalness we impart on ourselves when scrolling and seeing perfectly filtered lives.

This act of social comparison can be exacerbated given that our team meetings suddenly look like the opening titles of the Brady Bunch, as the faces (and offices, dining rooms or back bedrooms) of our colleagues fill the tiles on our screens, providing the perfect opportunity to compare. This instinct has evolutionary significance too, given the adaptive value of sizing up one’s ‘competitors’ to leave us either feeling superior or vulnerable.

Essentially, we are inviting more people than ever into our homes. This intrusion by colleagues (or even complete strangers) who are able to see past us and into our private life adds a third way our professional impression can be evaluated. Not only are we now constantly aware of our physical appearance and how we are communicating, but also how the space behind us looks too. Our background environment becomes just as important as our own appearance, and our territorial instincts may not feel comfortable with providing such an insight into our personal lives.

Ultimately, video calling provides a window into the outside world but a mirror into our own. However, if you’re staring at yourself don’t worry as it is likely everyone else is looking at themselves too!

More information

  • For further insights from our researchers, click here.
  • Learn more about the Durham PhD.
  • Explore Aarron's blog here.

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