Making eye contact has long been considered an effective way of drawing a listener in and bringing him or her around to your point of view, so researchers set out to investigate the effects of eye contact in situations involving persuasion.
"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool," said lead researcher Frances Chen, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, who conducted the research at the University of Freiburg, Germany.
"But our findings show that direct eye contact makes sceptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed," said Chen. Chen and colleagues took advantage of recently developed eye-tracking technology.
They found that the more time participants spent looking at a speaker's eyes while watching a video, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument that is, participants' attitudes on various controversial issues shifted less as they spent more time focusing on the speaker's eyes.
Spending more time looking at the speaker's eyes was only associated with greater receptiveness to the speaker's opinion among participants who already agreed with the speaker's opinion on that issue.
A second experimental study confirmed these findings. Participants who were told to look at the speaker's eyes displayed less of a shift in attitudes than did those participants who were told to look at the speaker's mouth.
The results showed that participants who looked at the speaker's eyes were less receptive to the arguments and less open to interaction with the advocates of the opposing views, and were thus more difficult to persuade.
According to Julia Minson of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-lead researcher of the study, the findings highlight the fact that eye contact can signal very different kinds of messages depending on the situation.
While eye contact may be a sign of connection or trust in friendly situations, it's more likely to be associated with dominance or intimidation in adversarial situations.
"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," said Minson. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.