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Study Reports, Making Eye Contact Is Not Always Effective

Update Date: Oct 02, 2013 04:02 PM EDT

For decades children have been taught to learn how to make good eye contact with others during conversations. Whether one is delivering a powerful speech or simply having a deep conversation within a small group, maintaining eye contact is a sign that people are listening. People have also believed that eye contact can help with persuading others to understand and agree with one's point of view and ideas. However, according to a new study, making eye contact with people who already disagree with your ideas could make them even more resistant to persuasion.

"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool," said University of British Columbia Professor Frances Chen, who conducted the research at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed."

For this study, the research team utilized the latest eye-tracking technology. The team recruited participants to undergo two different experiments. In the first one, the volunteers were asked to watch different videos of speakers who presented a variety of views on controversial, sociopolitical topics. The participants were instructed to watch freely. In the second experiment, the participants were asked to focus on either the eyes or the mouths of the speakers in the videos. This time, the speaker in the video had an opinion that contradicted the viewer's opinion.

The researchers found that in the first experiment, the participants who made more eye contact with the speakers were less likely to experience any attitude changes that could have been spurred on by the speakers in the video. In the second experiment, the researchers found that people who made eye contact were less likely to be persuaded than people who focused on the mouths of the speakers. Chen and his colleagues concluded that eye contact could actually be counterproductive to one's cause. The team suggested that eye contact could have very different effects on people depending on the situation.

"Whether you're a politician or a parent, it might be helpful to remember that trying to maintain eye contact may backfire if you're trying to convince someone who has a different set of beliefs than you," said co-author Julia Minson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government reported by Medical Xpress.

The researchers plan on studying the potential relationship between eye contact and persuasion analyzed through brain activity, stress hormones and heart rate. The study was published in Psychological Science.

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