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The Eyes Are Increasingly Dirty Windows Into the Soul

• October 02, 2013 • 1:02 PM

(PHOTO: MINERVA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If you’re trying to change somebody’s mind, it’s probably better if you let their eyes wander.

Increasingly it seems the eyes don’t have it. Last year, research suggested that the idea of people not being able to look in the eyes when they were lying was fundamentally wrong. Your eyes don’t indicate your honesty, although your hands are a different story.

Perhaps this was something we intuitively understood, because new findings appearing in the journal Psychological Science indicate that not only does looking someone in the eye not convince them, it may actually harm your case. Eye contact, especially if someone is predisposed to disagree with you and you’re pushing them to look you back, is not persuasive at all. (This might be helpful to understand as we navigate out of the government shutdown….)

If this sounds at odds with past research that’s found speakers who looks at their audience more are rated as more persuasive, understand that their outward gaze isn’t the same as making eye contact. That’s a two-person activity.

Let’s detail the work conducted by Frances Chen, Julia Minson, and their colleagues using eye-tracking software on 20 students from Germany’s University of Freiburg and see if you’re persuaded that they’re right about what happens when viewers look back.

After filling out a questionnaire about their attitudes on controversial public issues such as assisted suicide, factory farming, phasing out nuclear energy, the students watched videos of speakers offering arguments about those issues. Using an eye-tracking device, researchers determined how long their subjects’ eyes lingered on the taped speaker. (Past studies along these lines, lacking the technological edge of the tracker, could only follow the direction of the speaker’s gaze, not the viewer’s eyeballs.) Immediately after viewing the video, students were asked about it to determine their receptiveness to the video, their interest in it, and how emotional they felt while watching, and then the subjects took the attitude survey again.

The results?

Our findings that spontaneous gaze at a speaker’s eyes is associated with greater prior agreement and (sometimes) greater receptiveness, but also with less attitude change, highlight the importance of the social context in interpreting the psychological meaning of eye contact.

In a second study, the researchers used scripted videos (the original ones were taken off the Unternet) and had the same speaker record both pro and con arguments. Since viewers were only shown videos of viewpoints they had indicated they disagreed with, and the same speakers presented both sides, this reduced the likelihood that an inherently persuasive or disturbing presentation would skew the results. Viewers were told to either focus on the eyes or the mouths of the speakers, and those who fixated on the eyes were less likely to be convinced.

Are you convinced yet? In a release, Chen suggested “Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes.” And the authors don’t claim that all eye contact is created equal—when you’re with friends or loved ones, looking into their eyes generates trust. But when there’s conflict, it may suggest an effort to intimidate and or dominate, and so hurt your argument. (Australians may recall Kath’s command to “Look at moy!” as a classic failed forensic technique.)

Minson, who teaches public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, saw a political significance to the findings: “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.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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