Do you like being stared at? Neither does anyone else. We know that for sure, because psychologists have done many experiments on the subject — many, many creepy experiments.
When Psychologists Stare
Science is meant to test what we take for granted, but some tests are more glorious than others. While some interns get to gaze into eternity through telescopes, others get stuck with experiments like the one described in, "The Stare as a Stimulus to Flight in Human Subjects." The experimenters either stood on the corner of an intersection, or planted a scooter at an intersection, and stared, fixedly, at drivers stopped at stoplights. They then timed how quickly the driver left when the light changed. After they'd traumatized a couple hundred unfortunates, they tried not staring at a control group, and timed them. Guess which group drove away fastest. You get one try.
People dislike being stared at so much that we actually seem to have a physical response to it. One group of psychologists had volunteer subjects sit at a desk while, next to them, an experimenter stared fixedly at one side of their face. Just to top it off, the volunteer either had to read aloud, or sing aloud. The psychologists reasoned that singing was an embarrassing activity, while just reading was relatively painless. Both caused the poor volunteer to blush, but the stared-at cheek got hotter than the non-stared-at cheek. We dislike people staring at us so much that we subconsciously try to self-immolate.
While it's rarely a good idea to stare at people just to see what they do, there are certain times when it's more welcome than others. A study of people in Midwestern university libraries showed that occasionally, people tolerated being stared at. It's true that, generally they were male people, and sure, they only liked it when the person doing the staring was female, but they did have a positive response. For the most part, the female subjects quickly left the library.
Why We Stare and Why We Look Away
Male participants enjoying the stare of female experimenters gives us one reason why people stare at each other. It's not limited to heterosexual looks, of course. There's an entire study entitled, "Gaydar: Eye Gaze as Identity Recognition Among Gay Men and Lesbians," which explores how gay men and women use significant stares to communicate their attraction and identity. Gay people help the stare with smiles and occasionally look away — a good alternative to blankly staring at people while forcing them to sing.
People naturally stare at unusual subjects, which can be painful for those people who look unusual. Refusing to look at people, another common response, can also be unpleasant. One study observed how people looked at "novel"-looking people, who the experimenters described as "handicapped or pregnant." When the subjects knew they wouldn't be interacting with the person, and were only given the person's picture, they tended to stare. When the subjects interacted directly with the handicapped or pregnant person, they avoided looking at them. The experimenters found that, when the subjects of the experiment were able to look at the person through a one-way mirror for a few minutes, the novelty wore off and they interacted more naturally.
Occasionally we stare at other people as a request for help. If that's the goal, it seems to work. In an experiment similar to the intersection menaces, some psychologists stared at people about to cross the street, and then dropped some groceries or had some other minor crisis. People tended to stop and help more often when they were stared at. Another group of psychologists found that they were more successful at hitching rides when they stared at oncoming motorists than when they looked away. (They tried couples as hitchhikers, lone men as hitchhikers, and lone women as hitchhikers. The lone women were most successful. I guess we have that special, alluring look that says, "Statistically speaking, I am less likely than anyone else to leave you lying in a shallow grave." Who can resist that?)
Can You Feel a Stare?
Rupert Sheldrake made headlines in the mid-1990s, when he published some research that seemed to indicate that people can "feel" when they're being stared it. The creeping-feeling of an invisible stare is a long, cherished literary tradition, of course, but this was an experiment that seemed to confirm what was, essentially, just a dramatic turn of phrase.
What's more, he encouraged others to test the phenomenon out with a simple experiment. Each subject being stared at would either look away or be blindfolded. Onlookers would either stare or not stare at them, as dictated by a flip of a coin. The trial would be repeated 20 times, and each time the subject would write down whether they were being stared at or not being stared at. Sheldrake has claimed that the experiment has been repeated in schools and by independent groups, and has a high rate of success. There are even published studies in which the feeling of being stared at has been studied, and there was a modest confirmation of Sheldrake's results.
That being said, there are also studies that show people do not have stare-sensors. Some experimenters feel that tipping people off that they are being watched is a biased experimental method. When people are distracted by other activities, they almost never sense that they are being stared at. Other tests, set up like Sheldrake's, give results in which people's guesses aren't different from random chance.
So it looks like the best way to sense a stare is with your eyes. From now on, when you catch someone staring at you in a public setting, square your shoulders, march right up to them, and demand to know if they're a psychologist.
[Via The Stare as Stimulus to Flight in Human Subjects, Staring at One Side of the Face Increases Blood Flow on That Side of the Face, Norm Violations, Sex, and the "Blank Stare", Stigma, Staring, and Discomfort, Staring and Compliance: A Field Experiment on Hitchhiking, The Invisible Gaze, Staring Experiment]