Most workers think it is important to make eye contact while talking in a meeting or job interview, but they might be surprised at the reaction they get when they do, new research finds.
Even though making eye contact has long been considered an effective way of drawing in a listener and getting him or her to see a point of view, it may actually make people more resistant to persuasion, especially when they already disagree, the study discovered.
"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool," said lead researcher Frances Chen, of the University of British Columbia, who conducted the studies while at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds — not more, as previously believed."
As part of the study, researchers analyzed participants using recently developed eye-tracking technology. They found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker's eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument.
Overall, spending more time looking at the speaker's eyes was only associated with greater receptiveness to the speaker's opinion among those who already agreed with the speaker's opinion on that issue, according to the researchers.
In a second experiment, the study's authors found that participants were more likely to find speakers convincing when they focused on their mouths rather than on their eyes.
Julia Minson, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-lead researcher of the study, said the findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different messages depending on the situation. While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial circumstances, she said.
"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," Minson said.
The study, co-authored by Maren Schöne and Markus Heinrichs of the University of Freiburg, was recently published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
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