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How making eye contact can backfire

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Making eye contact can be counterproductive

It’s long been held that making eye contact is a positive way to successfully communicate to others, particularly when we’re trying to influence them to come around to our point of view. However, a new study published recently in an online issue of Psychological Science, found that making eye contact could instead be counterproductive by persuading people to actually resist the perspective we’re trying to communicate.

According to the study’s findings, making eye contact may also cause those who already disagree with you to become even more resistant to changing their minds.

"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,” said co-lead researcher Frances Chen, who is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, but carried out the study 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," she added. "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," explained the other co-lead researcher Julia Minson, an assistant professor of the Public Policy Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts.

The researchers found that maintaining eye contact may imply dominance or intimidation in certain circumstances.

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Using state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology, the research team set out to study how making eye contact in a variety of situations affected a person’s ability to persuade others to their point of view. To accomplish this, the team tracked the eye movements of viewers as they watched videos of different speakers trying to persuade them on a wide range of controversial social and political issues.

Also read: Why you should keep a close eye on known extroverts.

As a result, the researchers found that the longer a viewer spent looking at the speakers' eyes, the less likely the viewer was to agree with the speakers' point of view. In contrast, eye contact associated with successful persuasion was seen only in viewers who already agreed with the speakers’ point of view to begin with. "These findings suggest that efforts at increasing eye contact may be counterproductive across a variety of persuasion contexts," the study authors concluded. According to Minson, the results of the study show that eye contact can mean different things in different situations (e.g. expecting people to look at you while you are talking may have unintended consequences).

By the same token, making eye contact can reinforce trust in some circumstances, whereas it can imply dominance or intimidation in other situations, especially those involving opposing points of view.

The team reports that they are currently conducting additional research into the biological underpinnings of eye contact to see how it’s related to stress hormones, brain activity and heart rate in a variety of situations involving persuasive communication. "Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes," said Chen.

SOURCE: Psychological Science, “In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion,” Frances S. Chen, Julia A. Minson, Maren Schöne, and Markus Heinrichs (published online September 25, 2013); DOI:10.1177/0956797613491968