“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” we might say when trying to get through to a child we are trying to discipline. “He looked me straight in the eye,” we might say of someone trying to sell us something. “Keep eye contact,” we might remind ourselves in a job interview. According to the latest research, though, eye contact can actually make it harder to win someone over.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
If you’ve 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 A. Minson, study author and a 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 amidst the tumbleweeds 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 S. 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. . . .
“I’ve got two little kids, and when I’m not happy with them and trying to convince them that some particular thing is unsafe, I don’t try to force eye contact or say ‘Look at me!’ I resist that urge as a parent,” Minson said.
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 e-mail. “What worked best was just to sit at angles to them so there is less eye contact.”
Here is a link to the original study: F. S. Chen, J. A. Minson, et al., In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion, Psychological Science.