We’ve all heard pop psychology advice about eye contact, like “look into their eyes and you can change their mind.” But a study published in Psychological Science suggests that eye contact actually makes people less receptive to persuasion.
Researchers asked participants to view videos on controversial issues like assisted suicide, nuclear energy and university tuition, while wearing eye-tracking technology. They found that the longer a person gazed into their eyes, the less likely they were to shift in opinion.
1. It’s a sign of attraction
Whether or not it’s flirting with someone at the bar or making eye contact in the office, the eyes are an important part of conveying a person’s feelings. Normally, looking into someone’s eyes is a sign of attraction and indicates they are interested in you. This is especially true if you look into their eyes while smiling.
However, contrary to popular pop psychology, looking at someone’s eyes when trying to convince them to agree with your point of view can actually make them more resistant to being persuaded. Researcher Frances Chen, now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, and her team tested this assumption by polling college students on their positions on hot topics like assisted suicide, nuclear energy, and affirmative action in the workplace. Then, they had them watch videos with different speakers arguing for and against those controversial issues.
They found that those who watched a video with speakers who made more eye contact were less likely to believe the speaker. This is because they were already skeptical about the speaker’s arguments and the more they looked into their eyes, the more their skepticism was reinforced.
2. It’s a sign of trust
There’s an old piece of pop psychology that says if you want to persuade someone, look them right in the eyes. But researchers in Germany found the opposite. They asked students to watch videos of people discussing controversial subjects like abortion, nuclear energy, and affirmative action, then used eye-tracking technology to see how long the students looked into the speakers’ eyes. Turns out that the longer they stared at the speaker’s eyes, the less likely they were to change their opinions on these topics.
But it’s important to note that these results were correlational—the study didn’t prove that the eye contact caused the lack of opinion change, only that it was associated with it. Also, the study was conducted with students who already agreed with the subjects being discussed, so that may have influenced the outcome. Nevertheless, the results are intriguing and indicate that eye contact is not always a reliable tool for persuasion. In more adversarial situations, it could even backfire and come off as creepy.
3. It’s a sign of respect
There’s a bit of sturdy pop psychology out there that says that in order to make an argument, you should look your opponent directly in the eye. The idea is that this makes for an ego-boosting power struggle, and it will help you win the debate.
But a new study in Psychological Science suggests that the opposite is true: When it comes to persuading someone with a different view, locking eyes may actually make them less receptive to your point of view. In the study, researchers asked participants to watch videos of people discussing controversial issues and then either stare at the speaker’s eyes or their mouth. Both results showed that extended eye contact reduced receptiveness, but gazing at the mouth was more effective.
For example, imagine you’re buying a used car and the seller isn’t telling you all of the details. Holding eye contact with them could be a great way to keep them honest and get more information about the history of the car before you buy it.
4. It’s a sign of interest
Popular psychology suggests that the more you look into someone’s eyes, the more you’ll be able to connect with them and convince them of your point of view. But this theory is flawed, a new study finds.
Researchers in Germany had college students rate their opinions on flashpoint issues like assisted suicide and nuclear energy, then watched online videos of people expounding on those controversies. The scientists used eye-tracking machinery to determine whether the participants primarily focused on the speakers’ eyes or their mouths. They found that the more eye contact a speaker made, the less the audience agreed with them.
This is likely because people are more receptive to persuasive messages in situations when they already agree with the speaker, researchers suggest. But that’s not the only reason eye contact can backfire—it can also intimidate people in adversarial contexts, such as when they’re trying to negotiate a business deal or buy a car. This is because direct eye contact can activate the amygdala in the brain, which responds to threats and aggressive displays of dominance.