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Most of us think that when we want to make a point, we should look the other person in the eye. Spouses, bosses, car salesmen, politicians, all use a direct gaze when they’re trying to convince an audience of many or one that their position is the most valid. Now it turns out that they should probably cast their glance in a different direction.
Julia Minson, a psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who studies group decision making and negotiations, and her longtime collaborator, Frances Chen, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, realized that no one had studied this piece of conventional wisdom—that staring at someone will make the person more likely to see your point. Until now, most of the academic work has focused on what Minson calls “lovey-dovey contexts,” like mothers and babies gazing at each other (which cements their bond) and potential mates meeting one another’s gaze (also enhancing their connection). But when it comes to persuasion, academics have really only looked at interactions from the perspective of speakers, who almost always feel they are getting their point across if they are making eye contact.
In a new paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, Minson and Chen tested the proposition that eye contact can win over people who disagree with the speaker. In two different studies (conducted at the University of Freiburg where Chen was doing her post-doctoral work), their data show that people respond more favorably to opposing arguments when the speaker looks at an angle to the recipient or focuses his eyes on his counterpart’s mouth instead of his eyes.
Minson says that she and Chen weren’t totally surprised by their results. Those who study animal behavior have proved that many species, like dogs, control others by staring them down and then attacking. “The intuition that drove our research was that when someone disagrees with you and they look you in the eye in a prolonged, direct manner, it gives you the feeling of someone trying to dominate you,” says Minson. “Our reaction may be primal.”
To test their theory, Minson and Chen ran two studies. In the first one, they observed 20 students watching videos of people making arguments about controversial subjects like quotas for hiring women, assisted suicide and a nuclear power phase-out. They tested various scenarios, including instances where the students were pre-disposed to agree with the speaker or to disagree. Through eye tracking, they measured whether the students were looking at the speakers in the eye. In some of the videos the speakers stared directly at the camera. In others, they gazed out at a 45-degree angle. What Minson and Chen found: In cases where the students disagreed with the speakers’ positions at the outset, direct eye contact made them less likely to change their minds. “In cases where participants made more eye contact, they were less persuaded,” says Minson.
In a second study, they relied on a bigger sample of 42 students who watched eight videos made by four students who gazed straight at the camera, with their heads centered against a white background. Again the speakers discussed controversial subjects like hiring quotas and farming practices. All of the listeners disagreed with the speakers’ opinions. The professors directed them either to look directly at the speakers’ eyes or at their mouths. Again Minson and Chen found that those who looked at the speakers’ eyes, rather than their mouths, were less likely to change their opinions.
What does this mean for those of us who want to make a point? Minson observes that most people don’t make consistent eye contact. “Your eyes naturally go back and forth between the eyes and the mouth,” she notes. “There’s also some time when your eyes just wander around.” Don’t force yourself to look into the other person’s eyes more than you naturally would, she advises.
I had one big question about the study: Is a video interaction really the same as in-person communication? No, says Minson. When people are face to face, there are lots of other things going on, like body language where a speaker might lean in or respond in other ways to an attractive or unattractive recipient. At least the video interaction isolates eye contact.
Next time I want to make a point, I think I'll let my eyes wander.