Making eye contact has long been considered an effective way of drawing a listener in and bringing him or her around to your point of view. But new research shows that eye contact may actually make people more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree. The new findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye
contact as an influence tool," says lead researcher Frances Chen, who
conducted the studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and is now an
assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. "But our
findings show that direct eye contact makes sceptical listeners less likely to
change their minds, not more, as previously believed," says Chen.
To investigate the effects of eye contact in situations
involving persuasion, Chen and colleagues took advantage of recently developed
They found that the more time participants spent looking at
a speaker's eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the
speaker's argument that is, participants' attitudes on various controversial
issues shifted less as they spent more time focusing on the speaker's eyes.
Spending more time looking at the speaker's eyes was only
associated with greater receptiveness to the speaker's opinion among
participants who already agreed with the speaker's opinion on that issue.
More difficult to persuade
A second experimental study confirmed these findings.
Participants who were told to look at the speaker's eyes
displayed less of a shift in attitudes than did those participants who were
told to look at the speaker's mouth. The results showed that participants who
looked at the speaker's eyes were less receptive to the arguments and less open
to interaction with the advocates of the opposing views, and were thus more
difficult to persuade.
According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of
Government, co-lead researcher of the studies, the findings highlight the fact
that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the
situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly
situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in
So, while we might be tempted make the demand, "Look at
me when I'm talking to you!" of a listener, this demand may have
"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 to
you," says Minson.
The researchers are planning to look at whether eye contact
may be associated with certain patterns of brain activity, the release of
stress hormones, and increases in heart rate during persuasion attempts.
"Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably
goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes," says