WASHINGTON – “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” If you have ever used that line during a disagreement, you might want to think again. Forcing eye contact when trying to change someone’s mind may actually cause listeners to become more stubborn, a new study shows.
Researchers found that subjects made to hold eye contact with a speaker were less open-minded and held steadfast to their original opinion, more so than those who looked elsewhere.
“Eye contact is a very intimate thing,” said Julia Minson, study author and a Harvard University social psychologist. “So when you’re in a situation that feels confrontational, I think it’s more likely to put people off.”
Locking eyes with another person can feel bonding or threatening, depending on the context. Between a mother and her infant, eye contact helps build a stronger connection. Exchanging flirty glances across a crowded bar heightens attraction and activates pleasure centers in the brain.
But in other situations, a head-on stare can be the human equivalent of a bull getting ready to charge. Think of those old Western movies where two gunslingers have a stare-down before a shootout.
“When animals make eye contact, it’s usually prior to a dominance contest,” Minson said. “Dogs aren’t going to look each other in the eye unless they’re about to fight.”
When two people disagree, the context more so resembles a dominance contest than intimate bonding, she said, and can make a direct gaze seem aggressive.
“It’s already a tense situation,” said Frances Chen, the other study author and a social psychologist. “That’s a very primal way that eye contact is used.”
The findings contradict a common belief that locking eyes with objects of your persuasion will promote closeness and help sway them more easily.
Prior to the experiment, participants were surveyed on their opinions on various hot-button topics such as animal-farming practices and nuclear energy. The researchers then had them watch videotaped speeches supporting the opposing viewpoint while using eye-tracking technology. Afterward, the subjects were asked whether their attitude had changed.
The ones who focused on the speaker’s gaze were less likely to budge than those looking at other parts of the speaker’s face.
“People were less open-minded and receptive the more they look at the eyes,” Chen said.
Researchers tested spontaneous and forced eye contact. In the first experiment, they didn’t specify an area of gaze focus, but in the second, they told the subjects to stare at either the speaker’s eyes or mouth. The results — that eye contact was tied to less opinion change — were the same.
The study was published online in the journal Psychological Science.
Minson and Chen met in graduate school and found a common interest in what makes people receptive to persuasion. Or, as is more often the case, why it can fail even in the face of clear-cut evidence to the contrary.
“Regular run-of-the-mill people have a very hard time changing their mind,” Minson said. “Obviously, looking at the current political issues, this is not a trivial problem.”
She teaches negotiation analysis at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and says the results of the study can help people in different areas — from the boardroom to the household.
Joe Navarro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and an expert on body language, found that agents have more success with coaxing information out of interviewees when they avoid direct eye contact.
“It was easier to get people to confess by not sitting directly in front of them, which is a very primate antagonistic behavior with a lot of eye contact,” Navarro said in an email. “What worked best was just to sit at angles to them so there is less eye contact.”