You Lookin' At Me?

10.11_EyeContact (1)
In the Magazine

Be careful using eye contact: It can backfire. Sure, you've always heard that steadily meeting the gaze of the person across the table shows that you're confident and trustworthy, and that you might even know what you're talking about. But a newly released study suggests that locking eyes with your opponent isn't always a good way to win an argument. On the contrary, it can convince the other person that you're merely being obstinate. And what do you do then? 

Eyeball-to-eyeball communication between humans appears to be more complicated than previously thought. The new paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that eye contact between two people boosts a listener's receptiveness only when the listener already agrees with the speaker. In adversarial situations, the nonverbal link actually intensifies the existing dispute. "Our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds – not more, as previously believed," says lead author Frances Chen, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia

Chen set up two experiments utilizing sophisticated eye-tracking technology. In the first, participants watched a video of an individual delivering a speech. Subsequent interviews revealed that among the skeptics – listeners who initially did not share the speaker's views – those who spent the most time studying the speaker's eyes tended to be least likely to find the speech persuasive. (Listeners who already subscribed to the speaker's viewpoint grew still more sympathetic as they looked into the speaker’s eyes, but in strict terms they couldn’t be "persuaded" of what they already believed.) 

These results were bolstered by the second experiment, in which the subjects watched either the mouth or eyes of a speaker. Skeptics who focused on the speaker's moving lips, rather than the eyes, displayed greater receptiveness to the argument. 

No one can say for sure what these findings might tell us about the human mind. Previous research has found that habitual eye contact is correlated with everything from facilitated learning and maternal sensitivity to an increased risk of being attacked by dogs. Humans' response to eye contact as threat might possibly be a vestigial trait from our ancestors that persists as a subconscious defense mechanism. That is, eye contact during disagreement may intensify a dispute by emphasizing the contentious aspect of the interaction. As with practically all of human behavior, further research is definitely needed. 

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