Why Do People Stare At You?

You've probably wondered at some time another why someone is staring at you. At these moments, all sorts of questions run through your mind. According to psychology, it's a learning process.
Why Do People Stare At You?

Written by María Vélez

Last update: 13 October, 2022

There are times, when you’re on the bus, in a meeting, or just on the street, when people stare at you. At those moments, all sorts of things go through your mind. Is your zip undone? Do you have your shirt on inside out? Maybe they don’t like your shoes. On the other hand, perhaps they find you really attractive.

Unless you decide to start a conversation and ask them, it’s unlikely that you’ll find out why they’re staring at you. However, psychology can help you understand the reasons for these kinds of sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes flattering occurrences.

Girl in the subway looking

Why are they staring at you?

When you see people staring at you, the first thing you ask yourself is why. As a matter of fact, this is a universal habit in which we all participate. For this reason, some experts in social psychology wanted to discover what motives may be behind it. In fact, a research group from the University of London (UK) conducted a study with the aim of tracking the movements of the eyes of the people looking at others.

The main conclusion of this research was that people stare intently at non-verbal language. Therefore, when someone stares at you, it’s because they need to obtain more information about you. In fact, your non-verbal language, especially that of your face and eyes, provides a lot of information about your mental state.

Your eyes also contain a great deal of relevant social information, which can help others deduce what you’re thinking. Also, if you’re doing something like putting a top on a bottle or looking for something in your bag, whoever is staring at you is trying to understand what you’re doing and analyzing how you’re doing it. They’re probably also noticing your hand gestures if you’re speaking.

As humans, we’re all rather gossipy by nature. Furthermore, our main source of learning is the observation of others. Thus, another motivation that we have for staring at others is linked to our interest in learning. For example, we might watch someone fixing a puncture on a bike.

How do you feel when you’re being watched?

Something curious often happens when someone’s staring at you. Without looking up, you suddenly have a sense that you’re being watched. So, you turn your head and, sure enough, find that someone’s watching you. But how is this possible? Do you have a sixth sense that alerts you to someone’s stare? In psychology, this event is known as gaze perception.

It seems that there are two aspects of our evolution that have helped us to quickly detect that someone is looking at us. On the one hand, the physiognomy of the human eye. On the other, the adaptive and survival value of capturing glances directed at us in order to escape from a possible threat.

Unlike the eyes of many animals, the human eye has an extremely large sclera (the white of the eye). This allows us to better discriminate where someone is looking, based on the position of their pupils. Thus, even over great distances, we’re able to reliably perceive that someone is looking at us. In fact, thanks to our peripheral vision, we can do it almost without paying conscious attention,

Furthermore, eye contact has always been of vital importance to us. It gives us information about intentions, tastes, and emotions. Thus, since it’s the most powerful nonverbal social signal that we have, our brains are prepared and predisposed to notice glances from other people.

Woman looking sideways

A natural process

When you get the feeling that someone’s staring at you and find out that this is, indeed, the case, remember that it’s a natural human process. We’re all curious and want to observe and obtain information about everything that surrounds us. As we mentioned earlier, that person who’s looking at you may be learning something of real interest to them.

However, if you really want to satisfy your curiosity as to why they’re studying you, you’ll have to ask them.

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  • Scott, H., Batten, J. P., & Kuhn, G. (2019). Why are you looking at me? It’s because I’m talking, but mostly because I’m staring or not doing much. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics81(1), 109-118.
  • Lubienetzki, U., & Schüler-Lubienetzki, H. (2022). Verbal and Non-verbal Communication. In How We Talk to Each Other-The Messages We Send With Our Words and Body Language (pp. 5-35). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.