October 2, 2013
Debunking The Myth Of The Power Of Eye Contact
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
You may have heard that making eye contact is an effective way to help communicate an important message or make an effective point, but new research published in the journal Psychological Science found that eye contact may actually make people more resistant to ideas that they aren’t inclined to agree with.
"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool," said study author Frances Chen, a University of British Columbia professor who conducted the research at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed."
To breakdown this myth of eye contact as influence, Chen and colleagues turned to state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology. In an initial experiment, participants were instructed to freely watch videos of speakers espousing various viewpoints on controversial sociopolitical issues.
By tracking study participants’ eye movement during these videos, researchers found that the more volunteers watched a speaker's eyes, the less persuaded they were by their argument, meaning volunteers’ attitudes on the issues changed less the more they made eye contact.
Extended periods of eye contact were only found to be associated with greater receptiveness to the opinion being presented if participants already agreed with the speaker.
In a second experiment, participants were asked to look at either only the eyes or only the mouths of speakers presenting arguments counter to the volunteers’ own attitudes. The results of this trial indicated that participants who watched the speaker's eyes were less interested in the argument being presented and less receptive to the notion of interacting with someone espousing the opposing view. These participants showed a lower level of persuasion than those who were told to watch the speaker's mouth.
According to study author Julia Minson of the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the study’s findings emphasize the idea that eye contact can mean different things in different situations. While eye contact could denote a positive connection in friendly situations, it may be seen as an attempt at dominance or intimidation in disagreeable situations. Minson advocated a "soft sell" approach as more effective in the latter situation.
"Whether you're a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to keep in mind that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you're trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you," she said.
The study researchers said future studies will examine whether eye contact is associated with certain patterns of brain activity, hormonal responses and increases in heart rate during a disagreeable situation.
"Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes," Chen said.
In a 2006 article for Esquire, writer Tom Chiarella described the power that eye contact can have in social situations.
“A person’s gaze has weight, resistance, muscularity,” Chiarella wrote. “Clearly, there are people who use their eyes well. You know them: the sales rep, the fundraiser, the tyrannical supervisor. Their eyes force the question. These people may be as dumb as streetlamps, but they are an undeniable presence in the room. They know they must be dealt with. You know it, too.”