Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


eyes

(PHOTO: MINERVA STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.