A new study finds the widely held idea that making eye contact is an effective way of persuading others to come to your point of view does not always hold up. It may even make those who disagree with you less likely to change their minds.

The new findings, published in a recent online issue of Psychological Science, suggest making eye contact may actually increase resistance to persuasion.

Co-lead researcher Frances Chen, now an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, but who carried out the study while she was at the University of Freiburg in Germany, says:

“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.”

Julia Minson, assistant professor of the Public Policy Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts, also co-led the study. She says:

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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Researchers found that maintaining eye contact can imply dominance or intimidation in some circumstances.

For their study, the team used state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology to examine the effect of eye contact in a range of situations involving persuasion.

They tracked viewers’ eye movements as they watched videos of various speakers trying to persuade people to their point of view on a number of controversial social and political issues.

They found the more time viewers spent looking at speakers’ eyes, the less likely they were to shift to the speakers’ point of view.

Eye contact was only linked to greater receptiveness when the viewer already agreed with the speakers’ views, said the researchers.

The findings were confirmed in a second experiment, where they instructed the participants to look either at the speakers’ eyes or mouths as they presented arguments opposed to participants’ own views.

The results showed that intentionally maintaining direct eye contact with the speaker was less likely to result in a shift in attitude than gazing at their mouth.

“These findings suggest that efforts at increasing eye contact may be counterproductive across a variety of persuasion contexts,” write the authors.

Prof. Minson says the findings show eye contact can mean different things in different situations: expecting people to look at you while you are talking may have unintended consequences.

While eye contact can reinforce trust and friendship in some situations, in others, such as where there are strong differences of opinion, it can imply dominance or intimidation.

The team is now investigating the biological underpinnings of eye contact to find out how it links to stress hormones, brain activity and heart rate in different persuasion contexts.

Prof. Chen says:

Eye contact is so primal that we think it probably goes along with a whole suite of subconscious physiological changes.”

Research published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2011 concluded that people who are sad or depressed avoid eye contact.