• Seeing a large face on a video call can make your brain think the person is close and trigger a “fight or flight” response, according to a researcher who studies how people interact with computers.
  • People can control their personal space in physical meetings, but in virtual ones that’s decided by how close you sit and how big someone’s face appears, Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
  • During a Stanford study, people actually flinched when exposed to big virtual faces, offering one explanation for why Zoom calls can be so exhausting, Bailenson wrote.
  • As video calls become the norm due to coronavirus lockdowns, we’re starting to see the subtle but significant ways they change how we communicate.
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If that large face in the middle of your Zoom call has ever made you feel anxious or afraid, you’re not alone, according to a researcher who studies how humans interact with computers.

We’re naturally wired to pay attention to faces, and seeing large ones on a computer screen causes our brain interpret them as being close, which triggers our “fight or flight” reflex, Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.

“We choose seats, move chairs, and adjust our distance to stay comfortable” during real meetings, Bailenson wrote, but “on computer screens, ‘personal space’ is determined by the size of the face image and how far you sit from the screen.”

Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Skype, and other video conferencing tools display a full-screen image of the person talking by default, making them appear closer than might normally be socially acceptable during in-person meetings.

Bailenson referenced a Stanford study he worked on in 2003 where being exposed to large virtual faces actually caused participants to "flinch physically," which he suggested could explain why video calls can feel so exhausting.

"For every minute we are in Zoom, we have staring faces inches from our own. But if we move too far back from the screen, our colleagues might think we are disengaged," Bailenson wrote.

With a third of the world's population under some form of lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom and other video conferencing tools have taken over as the default method of communication for many people and businesses.

But these tools were built to increase online productivity and don't always do a perfect job of replicating face-to-face social interaction, and the imperfections don't just lead to moments of awkwardness or frustration - they also reveal differences in the ways we communicate digitally versus in person.

Technical limitations can mean a lack of direct eye contact, poor quality or lagging video and audio, call participants being cut-off mid-sentence, and other subtle but significant issues that prevent seamless conversation. That's before considering the slew of privacy concerns and unintended side effects like Zoom-bombing, a phenomenon where hackers join meetings uninvited and harass participants.

While there are various alternatives to Zoom, Bailenson also suggested several ways people can adapt in the meantime to make video calls less uncomfortable and draining. Tinkering with your settings, turning off video feeds, or placing an external webcam up close and keeping your laptop further back may help you regain some control over your digital personal space. If all else fails, he wrote, take a break from Zoom - or, just pick up the phone.