Archive for October 11th, 2013

October 11, 2013

The Power of Eye Contact: A Myth?

[Publisher’s Note: Michael J. Rosen, CFRE will be interviewed by CausePlanet in a free webinar about his award-winning book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing. Learn more and register for the October 17 program by clicking HERE. If you need a speaker or trainer, contact Rosen today.]

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We all have heard that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that matters. Now, new research sheds some surprising light on the subject. 

In the past, researchers have proven that body language is important. We’ve been told to stand-up straight. Don’t slouch while sitting. Don’t point. Shake hands firmly. Look people straight in the eyes, assuming it’s culturally appropriate given the context.

However, a new article by Susan Adams, in Forbes, comes with a surprising headline: “The Power of Eye Contact — It’s a Myth.” The article begins:

Most of us think that when we want to make a point, we should look the other person in the eye. Spouses, bosses, car salesmen, politicians, all use a direct gaze when they’re trying to convince an audience of many or one that their position is the most valid. Now it turns out that they should probably cast their glance in a different direction.”

Adams continues:

In a new paper just published in the journal Psychological Science, Minson and Chen tested the proposition that eye contact can win over people who disagree with the speaker. In two different studies (conducted at the University of Freiburg where Chen was doing her post-doctoral work), their data show that people respond more favorably to opposing arguments when the speaker looks at an angle to the recipient or focuses his eyes on his counterpart’s mouth instead of his eyes.”

Based on the Forbes article and even the study abstract itself, one might believe that development professionals should minimize eye contact with prospective donors when meeting face-to-face, at least during the ask. After all, the researchers state:

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

In other words, if you’re trying to persuade someone to make a donation, increasing eye contact can actually hurt your effort, the research suggests.

Eye on Money by peasap via FlickrThe study is certainly provocative given that it runs counter to conventional wisdom and other studies on the subject of eye contact. However, should we take the study seriously? When in situations where we are trying to persuade someone, should we do as Adams suggests and just let our “eyes wander”?

Well, before you automatically accept the research findings, consider these issues:

● The research samples were small involving just 20 students in the first study and 42 in the second.

● The research sample was culturally biased as it only involved college students.

● The research sample was age biased as it only involved college-age students.

● The research only involved the actions of the message recipients, not the messenger. In other words, the researchers considered where the message recipients were looking and not where the messenger was looking.

● The researchers instructed the study participants on where they could look, thereby possibly introducing bias.

● The research involved test subjects “interacting” with videotaped presenters rather than live speakers.

For me to break from conventional wisdom normally requires compelling evidence. While the Minson and Chen research is interesting and provocative, I find it sufficiently problematic to warrant further research.

On the other hand, I won’t completely discount the research findings.

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