Too much eye contact can make other people more resistant to persuasion, a recent study finds.
The results fly in the face of the common advice to make strong eye contact with another person when you want to persuade them.
People in the study were even less persuaded by eye contact when they held particularly strong opposing views.
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science, and used eye tracking technology to measure where people were looking during persuasion attempts (Chen et al., 2013).
Look ’em in the eye…or not?
In the study, participants watched a variety of videos on issues like nuclear energy, assisted suicide and university tuition, which had been culled from the internet.
While watching them, participants were either instructed to concentrate on the speaker’s mouth or on their eyes.
Afterwards, their attitudes towards the issue were measured and compared to their attitudes beforehand.
People who concentrated on the eyes were less likely to be persuaded, less receptive to the message and less open to interacting with the advocate.
The study’s lead author, Frances Chen, said:
“There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool.
But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed.”
The situation rules
The results are a reminder that the amount of eye contact that’s beneficial depends heavily on the situation.
Here are some norms from a previous article on how eye contact works:
“In groups people tend to look directly at another person for about 3-5 seconds, but when it’s one-to-one this increases to 7-10 seconds before they glance away.
There’s also the percentage of time spent looking at someone, compared with looking away from them.
Using self-tracking technologies, it seems the normal amount is anything between 30% to 60%. It will generally be more when you are listening and less when you are talking.”
People who know each other well, or are having a particularly ‘friendly’ conversation, often engage in more eye contact.
However, in some circumstances, high levels of eye contact are associated with dominance and intimidation.
That’s probably why people are more likely to comply with a simple request when looked in the eye:
“A whole raft of research shows the persuasive power of looking into someone’s eyes when making a request for compliance.
When making more subtle arguments that take longer, though, lots of strong eye contact can create an adversarial situation that makes people want to resist.
Julia Minson, one of the study’s co-authors, said:
“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.”
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About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: malloreigh
Psychology of Persuasion
→ This post is part of a series on persuasion techniques:
- How to Influence People
- The Persuasive Power of Swearing
- Loudest Voice = Majority Opinion
- Don’t Take No For An Answer
- The Influence of Fleeting Attraction
- Caffeine Makes Us Easier to Persuade
- Persuasion: The Right-Ear Advantage
- Balanced Arguments Are More Persuasive
- The Battle Between Thoughts and Emotions in Persuasion
- Are Fast Talkers More Persuasive?
- Persuasion: The Sleeper Effect
- Communicating Persuasively: Email or Face-to-Face?
- The Influence of Positive Framing
- The Illusion of Truth
- 9 Propaganda Techniques in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11
- Persuasion: The Third-Person Effect
- 20 Simple Steps to the Perfect Persuasive Message
- Why Stories Sell: Transportation Leads to Persuasion
- How To Encourage People To Change Their Own Minds
- When Does Reverse Psychology Work?
- The One (Really Easy) Persuasion Technique Everyone Should Know
- The Single Most Effective Method for Influencing People Fast
- 9 Ways The Mind Resists Persuasion and How To Sustain or Overcome Them
- How To Make Persuasive Eye Contact