Practical Eloquence strives to keep you abreast of the latest cutting edge science on persuasion, so here goes: Two recent articles about eye contact reveal the amazing power that it has for persuasion, on the one hand, as well as a surprising study that reveals its limitations.
An article in the New York Times called “Psst. Look Over Here”, revealed several fascinating facts about the powerful feelings of connection that eye contact can generate. Did you know that the brains of legally blind people light up when someone looks them in the eye? Did you know that in one study subjects were more likely to choose Trix cereal if the rabbit was looking at them that if it was looking away? Another study at Northwestern University found that doctors with more eye contact had better patient outcomes, probably because their patients were more likely to follow their advice and to seek treatment for subsequent problems.
Information like this reinforces the persuasive power of maintaining eye contact during presentations and conversations. But before you get too carried away, you might want to take a look (no pun intended) at recent research by Frances Chen and others that found more eye contact to be associated with less persuasion, when the listener is skeptical to begin with. One of the researchers says, “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.” The theory is that skeptical listeners might view eye contact as challenging or an attempt at intimidation.
So, are there times when less eye contact is better? It might seem like a reasonable possibility, but before rushing to conclusion
I don’t have access to the full study, but I did note from the abstract that the study involved subjects watching the eyes of a speaker on video, not a live speaker. Is that a serious limitation? It’s up to you to decide, but I’m not yet prepared to advocate keeping your eyes averted even in difficult conversations.