Contrary to popular belief, a recent study found that eye contact might actually hurt the effectiveness of persuasion.
Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School and the University of Freiburg found that when experiencing direct eye contact, listeners were unreceptive to viewpoints that differed from their own.
The study’s participants’ eyes were monitored with a tracking technology while they were shown videos of people giving speeches about various controversial issues. Researchers found that participants’ beliefs about a particular issue were less likely to change the longer they looked at a speaker’s eyes. A locked gaze proved to be positively effective only when the participant already agreed with the speaker’s opinion.
“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,” Julia Minson, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-lead researcher of the study, said in a statement.
Her team conducted a follow up study, which found that looking anywhere but the eyes could be beneficial. They found that those who looked at the speaker’s eyes were not as persuaded as those who had focused on speakers’ mouths.
Minson acknowledged that reactions to eye contact are completely situation-dependent; body language that might normally inspire trust and closeness in friendly situations can just as easily be associated with intimidation or bullying when two people are at odds.