Unwanted eye contact with strangers make us squirm. Now, researchers have figured out just why that is. As it turns out, catching someone else's eye makes us more self aware—and thus, self-conscious—about our own bodies, Research Digest reports.
Researchers asked 32 volunteers to look at a series of photos. Each of the photos showed either a man or a woman. Some of the people pictured in the photo were looking directly at the camera, while others were looking away. After seeing each image, the researchers asked the participants about how strongly they reacted to it, and at the same time took measurements of their skin conductivity, which correlates with how emotionally charged they were, Research Digest describes.
The people viewing the images reported feeling more emotionally tuned in to the photos making eye contact, and their physiology reflected that. As the researchers said, "Our results support the view that human adults' bodily awareness becomes more acute when they are subjected to another's gaze."
It seems likely that that effect would be even stronger in person, although the researchers didn't test that hypothesis. If true, however, we can blame our own self consciousness on the awkward feeling we get when catching the eye of a stranger on a train or on the street.