Looking Refugees in the Eye: The Difference Four Minutes Can Make

Can four minutes really change the world?

Maybe not. But they can impact a human heart.

It is impossible to search the news today without being bombarded by the tension between the fear of terrorism on the one hand, and the unthinkable plight of refugees on the other.

On both sides, the arguments become detached, generalized, dehumanizing. People get reduced to statistics.

The number of people suffering.

The number of refugee assaults on citizens.

The percent of refugees who are women and children.

The percent of men who’ve been radicalized.

The risk of starvation.

The risk of terrorist links.

At the core of these arguments, there is visceral emotion—pain, fear, loss.

But on both sides are people. People who have been hurt. People who are afraid. People who want what’s best for themselves and those they love.

For millennia, the eyes have been regarded as the mysterious window to the soul. We’ve all felt it—the inexplicable, uncomfortable, overwhelming intimacy when a stranger looks you directly in the eyes. Most of the time, the feeling is so piercing, we have to look away.

A 1997 study explored how feelings of intimacy and closeness are created. One of the most powerful factors? Eye contact. More specifically: intense, sustained eye contact, lasting four minutes. In these four minutes, we see more than a person’s political views. We see more than their religious beliefs or nationality. We see the person. We see eyes that have seen beauty and pain and joy and suffering, just like we have.

Recently, our friend Branden Harvey shared a video (above) made vy Amnesty International Poland in the mist of rising fears and anti-refugee sentiments swelling in Europe. They decided to test the supposed power of eye contact. They wondered what would happen when people from very different backgrounds—European citizens and newly arrived refugees who had never met before—stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes. The results are breathtaking.

What would happen if you took four minutes to look into the eyes of someone you fear? Someone who is different? Someone you mistrust? What if you were brave enough to spend four minutes looking into the eyes of your enemy?

What would you see?