If you’ve ever worked with a coach to improve your ability to communicate persuasively, you probably learned how important it is to look directly at people when you’re talking to them. The rule of thumb is that looking at someone directly when you’re speaking makes you appear confident. It makes your message more persuasive.
It turns out that, in some situations, direct gaze can backfire and actually be less persuasive.
Frances Chen (2013) and her team put this idea to the test using videos of people speaking. In a series of studies, participants watched videos of people talking about controversial political topics. Here’s what Chen found:
- If participants agreed with the speaker’s message, then they spontaneously looked at the speaker’s eyes.
- If participants disagreed with the speaker’s message, then they tended not to look at the speaker’s eyes.
- If the speaker was angled slightly away and did not maintain eye contact with the camera, then participants were more likely to be persuaded by the speaker and change their opinion.
- If participants were told to watch the speaker’s eyes and the participants did not agree with the speaker, then they did not change their opinion on the topic.
- If participants were told to watch the speaker’s mouth rather than their eyes, then the participants were more likely to be persuaded to change their opinion.
In her discussion of the research, Chen refers to the idea that direct gaze is used in two different ways. One is “affiliative.” People look directly at the speaker when they’re being social, when they want to engage with the speaker, and when they’re open to affiliation or agreement with the speaker.
But another way that people use direct gaze is to intimidate. If people don’t agree with what the speaker is saying and if the speaker is looking right at them, the gaze will seem more confrontational than affiliative. If the gaze is confrontational, then people will be on guard and defensive, and the gaze will not be persuasive.
Designers often have to make decisions about whether to use a photo that involves direct gaze. Video producers have to make decisions about whether to shoot promotional videos with someone speaking directly into the camera or off to the side. The answer based on the research is “it depends.” It depends on whether the message is controversial, and whether the people watching the video are most likely already in agreement with the speaker, or if the speaker is trying to persuade them.
Use the flowchart in Figure 8.1 to help you decide whether or not to use an image or speaker with direct gaze.
FIGURE 8.1 A flowchart for direct gaze decision.
- When your target audience might not agree with the message, use an image of an individual who is gazing slightly off to the side.
- When your target audience agrees with your message, you can use direct gaze.
- When the purpose of your message is to connect in a social way (and not to persuade) and when the message is not controversial, you can use direct gaze.