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 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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