Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Visual Dominance Ratio

The use of eye contact is an aspect of interpersonal relations that is now being incorporated into quantitative approaches to modeling human behavior. One such approach, the Visual Dominance Ratio, appears to possess an exciting mix of robustness and precision.  

 The Visual Dominance Ratio

The VDR brings greater detail to old views on the importance of eye contact. It appears that the absolute presence of eye contact between two individuals, while important in many respects, is less telling than the manner in which eye contact behavior shifts as an individual switches between speaking and listening roles. Simply put, the VDR takes the percentage of time that one spends looking into another person's eyes while one is speaking and divides it by the percentage of time that one spends looking into another person's eye while one is listening.

VDR= (% eye contact while speaking) / (% eye contact while listening)

So let us say that, during a lunch meeting, a man speaks for a total of ten minutes and maintains eye contact with his colleague for eight minutes, or 80% of the time. His friend speaks for a total of twenty minutes; while his friend is speaking, the man looks into the speaker's eyes for a total of sixteen minutes. Once again, this represents 80% of the available time.

80% / 80% = 1.00. A VDR of 1.00 signifies a neutral relationship in which neither party is expressing clear social dominance. Note that the man could have largely avoided eye contact with the other individual and maintained the same "equal status" type VDR (provided that he looked away while speaking and looked away while listening in equal time amounts).  

Social Dominance Cues

If you look at someone else when you speak to him or her, but then look away when that person is talking, you will generate a VDR greater than 1.00. This is generally associated with social dominance. If, on the other hand, you avoid eye contact while speaking to someone and then look into his or her eyes when the person speaks to you, this will generate a VDR lower than 1.00 and is associated with social subordination.

Leonard Mlodinow reports that VDR's predictive power can be striking:  

Here is an example of the data: when speaking to each other ROTC cadets exhibited ratios of 1.06, while ROTC cadets speaking to officers had ratios of .61; undergraduates in an introductory psychology course scored .92 when talking to a person they believed to be a high school senior who did not plan to go to college, but .59 when talking to a person they believed to be a college chemistry honor student accepted into a prestigious medical school; expert men speaking to women about a subject in their own field scored .98, while men talking to expert women about the women's field, .61; expert women speaking to nonexpert men scored 1.04, and nonexpert women speaking to expert men scored .54.  

Tactical Application of the VDR

At this stage of the VDR's development, most social scientists employing it in studies use it as a trailing indicator: social dominance or lack thereof is assumed to be pre-existing, and humans tend to display mathematically precise VDRs in accordance with these hierarchies. An interesting research area is to determine if the VDR might also be a leading indicator. In this case, the VDR could in itself help to establish or reinforce a particular dominance hierarchy. In an environment of uncertainty regarding relative positions on the status ladder, subtle behaviors could shift the balance and an understanding of the VDR could thus have potential value as a sort of social weapon. The tactical application of VDR under dynamic social conditions would be based on the idea that people can and will respond to subliminal stimuli with adaptive behavioral shifts.

If you wanted to exaggerate your social dominance position in respect to another person, for example, you would add a trained VDR pattern to your quiver of verbal and non-verbal dominance tricks. You would look directly at the person while speaking, and look away while the other person talked to you. Perhaps the recipient of this treatment would be inclined to respond on autopilot by subliminally assuming your superior status and being more likely to comply to your requests or directives. This practice could obviously run the risk of being a transparently rude and obvious dominance play and leading to a nasty, belligerent interaction, so a VDR tactician would need to factor this into the circumstances of its use.

Someone seeking to placate or de-escalate could adopt the opposing VDR pattern---looking away while speaking, maintaining eye contact while the other person spoke. This would help to establish a feeling that you are subordinating yourself.

 Finally, someone who wished to establish rapport would seek a balanced ratio. The easiest way to do this would be to maintain eye contact during the whole interaction, although in some cultures this could be seen as provocative or invasive in some way. A more refined heuristic might be to politely break eye contact when the other person looked away, and then re-establish it when the other person came back.


  1. I disagree. A lot of creative people look away while speaking so that they can formulate their thoughts without being distracted by eye contact. This has nothing to do with subordination.

    Also in many eastern cultures looking someone directly in the eye is considered rude.