What We Know about Eye Contact Is Wrong

“Look at me when I talk to you!” How many moms, dads, husbands, wives, and bosses have shouted that line? Well, if they’re trying to persuade you to take out the trash, pick up after yourself, or do the job their way, they might be fighting against themselves.

Of importance to those of us in this communications community, the same is true for those trying to influence policymakers, customers, reporters, and audiences of various categories.

So says a recent study titled, “In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion” out of the University of Freiburg, Germany.

The researchers determined that solid eye contact may actually be problematic in some cases, arguing that a direct gaze means different things in different situations. In persuasive situations, the study says, “We suggest that the common efforts to look into the eyes of a persuasion target and demand that they do so in return may be counterproductive to changing hearts and minds.”

The study further states, “greater eye gaze was also associated with lesser persuasion success.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is both surprising and counterintuitive.

In other words, trying too hard to enforce eye contact with your listeners can actually backfire. According to the research, “Contrary to cultural belief and suggestions of some prior research, eye contact decreases [emphasis theirs] the success of persuasion attempts. In two studies, individuals who returned the gaze of a speaker delivering a persuasive message were less likely to shift their attitudes in the direction advocated than individuals who averted their gaze.”

How can this be? “It is possible,” write the authors, “that direct gaze in a competitive context may activate a broad response (perhaps akin to the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response) that generally inhibits attention, empathy, and the open and thoughtful consideration of multiple viewpoints.”

These novel findings seem destined to spur debate and misinterpretation (as already happens with so many nonverbal signals). Yet the research team may be on to something, for they point out that past studies relied on incomplete analysis. Previous work examined the speaker’s outbound gaze, not taking into account the level of eye contact returned by audience members. Thus, the amount of actual one-to-one eye contact has been unclear until now. The new study used newer eye tracking technology to get a more refined evaluation.

What did this new approach find? “[P]opular conceptions associate eye contact with open-mindedness. It is possible, however, that this association does not extend to persuasion contexts. Most persuasion attempts take place in the presence of some disagreement, if not outright conflict.”

The authors concluded, “The fact that this ubiquitous social behavior can lead to different outcomes depending on the social context deserves attention and speaks to the complexity of the processes at play.”

As always, research is all well and good. But most of us are interested in the real world implications. What does this mean? Here’s my take.

When you are attempting to persuade a skeptical or outright hostile audience, reporter, or policymaker, you may want to dial down your level of eye contact.

“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,” co-lead researcher Julia Minson, assistant professor of the Public Policy Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told the publication Emax Health.

How can you contribute to this research? Let’s continue the discussion here. I suggest appraising a number of factors when you find yourself in persuasive mode:

  • Monitor your audience. Gauge where they are looking. Modify your eye contact as appropriate.
  • Assess your situation, taking into account what the authors call, “the importance of the social context in interpreting the psychological meaning of eye contact.”
  • Try this “less is more” approach. Observe your results. And report them here in the comments section.
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