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Is eye contact overrated?
Don't look now, but...
 
Good luck winning the argument this way.
Good luck winning the argument this way. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

Traditionalists and high-powered guys with Machiavelli on their Kindles will probably tell you that looking straight into another person's face and maintaining unflinching eye contact is the age-old secret to the Powers of Persuasion. In actuality, though, the opposite may be true, especially in the midst of a heated debate.

"Debate" is the operative word here. Unlike previous psychological studies analyzing the bonds forged when a mother stares into a baby's eyes, or when two lovers tenderly lock gazes, this time a team of researchers from Harvard University and the University of British Columbia sought to understand eye contact from a different vantage point: Does looking into another person's eyes really help your cause when you're trying to win an argument?

The short answer: Perhaps not. The new paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, only took a look at 20 participants, but the results are intriguing. Researchers had subjects share their opinions on contentious issues, such as affirmative action and assisted suicide, then watch recorded talks by a speaker on those same topics. At the same time, researchers used eye-tracking technology to determine when and (more importantly) if participants were looking at the eyes of the person in the recording.

When participants shared an opinion with the speaker, they were more likely to establish eye contact. But when they disagreed, suddenly their gaze was less focused. "The participants were less likely to change their opinions if they were looking into the eyes of the speaker, especially when the speaker was also looking directly at the participant, rather than to the side of the screen," says Alexander Sifferlin at TIME:

To test this again, the researchers had the participants watch more videos, but sometimes they were told to look into the speaker's eyes, and other times they were instructed to look at the speaker's lips. The participants who looked into the speaker's eyes were once again less likely to change their opinions compared to participants focusing on the speaker's lips. [TIME]

Now, most people simply aren't accustomed to making consistent eye contact. "Your eyes naturally go back and forth between the eyes and the mouth," co-author Julia Minson, a psychologist and assistant professor at Harvard, tells Forbes. "There's also some time when your eyes just wander around."

Of course, the study does have its flaws. Video interaction is a poor substitute for person-to-person interaction, so all those reactive subtleties communicated by body language are lost in transmission.

Still, not locking eyes may be your best tactic going forward if you're trying to make a point. Putting your phone away probably helps, too.

 
Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Sometimes he writes about other stuff. His work has also appeared in TIME, Men's JournalEsquire, and The Atlantic.

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