Is Eye Contact Overrated?

Persuasion and InfluenceI reviewed a study that was published in Psychological Science, entitled, In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion.  This study suggests that eye contact may not be as important as we have come to accept as an essential behavior for effective communication. The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Freiburg, University of British Columbia, and Harvard University. They used eye-tracking technology on their subjects as they watched videos of people seriously attempting to be persuasive.

The researchers believed that their experiments validated that, “when listeners look directly into the eyes of a speaker, it increases their resistance to attitude change in the direction the speaker is advocating.” I was quite surprised by the findings in this study. Most of us have been trained to distrust “shifty” or “beady” eyes and respect or trust a proper amount of eye contact. You can read the original article here.

The researchers used different groups to conduct two experiments. In each, they asked the students to watch videos of people making persuasive presentations. They used eye-tracking software to see exactly what the students were watching from moment to moment and documented the reactions by administering questionnaires before and after the groups had been exposed to the videos. They were seeking to determine the differences before and after the videos were viewed.

The researchers discovered that when someone starts out disagreeing with you, and you establish eye contact, you are more likely to create resistance. In this context, eye contact, tends to be more intimidating.

During the experiment, they learned that students who looked at the speakers’ eyes most developed more resistance to the speakers’ point of view. The effect was most pronounced when they looked directly in the speakers’ eyes, and when they were not predisposed to the speakers’ viewpoint.

The research appears to be based on an older models of persuasion where a speaker can manipulate an audience with charisma and rhetorical devices. Current communication and persuasion models tend to focus on the audience rather than the speaker. Today, most audiences are too “savvy” to be tricked into a particular position or belief.

Persuasion occurs when the speaker understands the goals of the audience and aligns the presentation accordingly. The audience and the speaker must cooperate if persuasion and commitment is to occur.

Eye contact does play a role in the encounters of many species, including humans. But, when we engage in persuasive dialogue with an audience, and if we set the tone of the presentation as positive or at least neutral, eye contact is less threatening. In this context, we make eye contact a positive and persuasive behavior.

Therefore, we should try beforehand to discern areas of potential disagreement with our audiences so that we can minimize the threatening effect of eye contact.

Related Articles:   When Presenting … pause here, here and here! and   Engage Your Audience … compel them to listen!

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James E. McClain is the author of Successful Career Development: A Game Plan, the book upon which some of our training programs are based. He has over 30 years' experience as a corporate HR executive, small business owner with ongoing experience in career development and as a college instructor. His educational background includes a B.S. and Masters degrees Education and Certification in Financial Planning. Our promise is that "you can pay more for training but you can not buy better training." The mission is to deliver the most effective and cost effective training and development programs.

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