Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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