Eye contact is often touted as a winning persuasion tool in negotiation and other realms, including politics and law. Yet past research attesting to eye contact’s persuasive power typically has studied the gaze of the speaker, not that of the listener, leaving open the question of whether eye contact even occurred.
In a new study, Frances S. Chen of the University of Freiburg and her colleagues used eye-tracking technology to monitor the gaze of participants as they watched prerecorded videos of speakers presenting their views on hot-button political topics such as nuclear energy and assisted suicide. The participants’ attitudes toward these topics were assessed before and after they viewed their assigned videos.
In one experiment, participants spent more time looking into a speaker’s eyes when they shared the speaker’s opinion on the issue being discussed. Interestingly, however, those who stared the most at the speaker were the least likely to be persuaded by his or her message, particularly when the speaker gazed directly at the viewer.
In a second experiment, participants viewed only prerecorded videos in which the speakers, facing them directly, presented messages with which the participants disagreed. Some participants were instructed to focus on the speaker’s eyes while watching the videos; others were told to focus on the speaker’s mouth. In this experiment, those in the “eyes condition” were less persuaded by the speakers’ messages than were those in the “mouth condition.” And when participants disagreed with the message being delivered, they tended to avert their eyes from the speaker.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, this study found that eye contact actually decreased the success of persuasion efforts, especially when the speaker and listener had very different views. The results suggest that when you are trying to win someone over to your point of view in negotiation, a little rather than a lot of eye contact may go a long way.
Resource: “In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion,” by Frances S. Chen, Julia A.
Minson, Maren Schöne, and Markus Heinrichs. Psychological Science, 2013.