How Eye Contact Can Backfire

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We’re often told to maintain eye contact when speaking with others. But a new study published in the journal Psychological Science is poking holes in the theory that looking deep into someone’s eyes shows interest and boosts persuasion.

In fact, the University of British Columbia researchers report that in the midst of an argument, looking the other person in the eye won’t get them to agree with you. It actually may do the opposite.

The researchers tested the power of eye contact by asking 20 study participants to share their opinions of controversial issues such as affirmative action and assisted suicide, and then watch a video of a speaker chatting about various topics. The researchers used eye-tracking technology to determine when the participants were maintaining eye contact.

When the speaker in the video spoke about opinions the participant shared, the participant maintained eye contact more consistently. But when the speaker started covering topics the participant disagreed with, they looked away.

The participants were less likely to change their opinions if they were looking into the eyes of the speaker, especially when the speaker was also looking directly at the participant, rather than to the side of the screen. To test this again, the researchers had the participants watch more videos, but sometimes they were told to look into the speaker’s eyes, and other times they were instructed to look at the speaker’s lips. The participants who looked into the speaker’s eyes were once again less likely to change their opinions compared to participants focusing on the speaker’s lips.

“There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool,” said lead researcher Frances Chen, an assistant professor at University of British Columbia, in a statement. “But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.”

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