I’ve often wondered why eye contact—which is supposed to make you feel good, because your conversational partner is paying attention to you and not her phone!—can actually feel like an attempt to vacuum out your soul through your eyeballs. Unless the circumstances are exactly right, the midair meeting of two gazes can be awkward and unsettling. Better to examine a shoe. Better to only speak from within a cave, engulfed in fumes, like the oracle at Delphi.
We’re told that eye contact is a powerful thing. Hypnotists (and vampires) use it to get inside your head; public speakers use it to create an emotional connection. Parents tell kids to “look at me when I’m talking to you,” because returning a gaze is supposed to communicate receptivity. But is it true that staring directly into someone’s pupils gives you special powers of persuasion over him or her?
Eye contact is the topic of a new paper in the journal Psychological Science. Wondering whether college students were more or less likely to agree with a speaker after gazing into her eyes, authors Frances S. Chen and Julia A. Minson of the University of British Columbia hatched two experiments. In the first, 20 participants completed surveys indexing where they stood on a series of flashpoint issues, including assisted suicide, nuclear energy, and university tuition. The volunteers then wore eye-tracking technology while viewing Internet videos of people arguing for or against those same controversies.
Interesting finding No. 1: Participants who agreed with the pundits before even watching the videos stared more at their eyes. Apparently when you are in the process of bonding with someone over a shared fervor for college tuition reductions, you want to drink in her gaze—this aligns with previous research linking eye contact to “affiliative behaviors.” (And no, sex doesn’t count as an “affiliative behavior,” though eye contact can lead to that, too).
Unsurprisingly, these participants reported that watching the videos did not shift their thinking on the issues, since the pundits were just voicing opinions they already held. But of the volunteers who disagreed with the videos, those who stared into the eyes of the recorded speakers were also more likely to stand firm. Volunteers who looked away—at the speakers’ lips or at the ground, for instance—were more frequently persuaded to change their minds.
In a second experiment, Chen and Minson made two tweaks to their procedure: They presented volunteers only with videos that they were inclined to disagree with, and they instructed the volunteers to focus on either the speaker’s eyes or mouth the whole time. Interesting finding No. 2: Participants in the eye condition were less persuaded by the prerecorded arguments than those in the mouth condition.
According to the researchers, this may be because eye contact—long associated with romantic spaghetti dinners and intense spiritual communion—is actually really intimidating and scary. Or at least, in situations where people expect conflict, it comes across as a power play rather than an olive branch. Primates and dogs stare their opponents down when they want to assert dominance. If a listener disagrees with a speaker, she is probably already in a combative frame of mind, more defensive than receptive, quick to interpret a steady gaze as a thrown gauntlet.
What does this mean for you, dear reader? Even if your eyes are your best feature, mercilessly insisting on eye contact can make an ambivalent conversational partner less likely to find you persuasive (and more likely to find you creepy). On the other hand, if you want to deepen a connection to someone who already agrees with everything you’re saying, gaze away! Unless you are a basilisk.