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.]


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.

Adams quotes Minson making an interesting point:

The intuition that drove our research was that when someone disagrees with you and they look you in the eye in a prolonged, direct manner, it gives you the feeling of someone trying to dominate you. Our reaction may be primal.”

Understandably, most people do not want to feel like you’re trying to dominate or intimidate them. If they feel you are, they’re likely to resist. For our purposes, that means they’ll be less likely to donate.

My take-away from the study is that we should make eye contact with prospects and donors, but strive to be natural. As with so many things in life, it seems that moderation is called for when it comes to eye contact. We should avoid staring at others with a penetrating gaze.

When preparing to write this post, I spent some time looking on the Internet for articles about the effective use of eye contact. During my search, I came across two fantastic articles at a website with an unfortunate name (please don’t be offended): The Art of Manliness.

While not backed by specifically cited scientific research, the articles do include source citations. And the articles resonated with my decades of development and marketing experience. The articles are by Brett and Kate McKay: “Look ‘Em in the Eye: Part I – The Importance of Eye Contact” and “Look ‘Em in the Eye: Part II – How to Make Eye Contact the Right Way in Life, Business, and Love.”

Here are some of the tips offered by the McKays:

●  “Don’t be a creeper.” In other words, don’t stare trying to pull a svengali routine.

●  “When you’re with someone you’re not as familiar with, lean back as you increase your eye contact.” This approach is far less threatening and dominating than leaning toward the person while looking into his or her eyes.

●  “Focus on one eye at a time and switch between them.” This approach will make your gaze appear more natural, particularly if you shift your focus gradually.

● “Don’t overdo it.” Gazing into someone’s eyes for a prolonged period is unnatural and can be unnerving for the other person, as Minson stated. So, in addition to shifting focus from one eye to the other, also cast your gaze periodically to the person’s mouth.

●  “When you break your gaze, look to the side, not down.” This will help you to avoid looking submissive or ashamed. It will also help you avoid looking like a liar.

The McKays also offer an interesting suggestion for salespeople that is absolutely applicable to development professionals:

When trying to make a sale: If you’re a salesman, making eye contact with potential buyers is important in building trust and rapport, but it’s also useful to watch for when they make eye contact with you. They’ll often do that when you’ve said something that especially interests them, so pause and expand on that point or product feature.”

Eye contact can be useful. Just don’t overdo it, and don’t under-do it either. And don’t worry about your eye contact to the point of being distracted from listening. Your ears are still very important. Nevertheless, paying attention to how you use eye contact can help you close more gifts.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

6 Comments to “The Power of Eye Contact: A Myth?”

  1. Michael: Consider the cultual envirnoment in which the study was conducted. Cultural norms and traditions may have contributed to the findings. MM

    • Margaret, thank you for commenting. You’re quite right when you say that cultural context is important. The eye-contact studies were indeed culturally biased because the small samples included only college students and, presumably, that also means younger people. That’s why I believe that more research is needed. Meantime, people should be aware of how they use eye contact, and they need to make sure that their actions are culturally appropriate given the context of each situation. For example, in mainstream Western culture, maintaining eye contact is seen as a sign of attentiveness and respect. However, in some cultures (i.e.: Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American), eye contact can be perceived as a lack of respect. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple matter of looking in someone’s eyes or not. Care must be taken.

  2. I say… it’s all fascinating stuff. As are the studies about modelling. But, whenever I try it I feel forced and unnatural. The best advice I can give folks is to be authentic. Be yourself. Think about your donor as a potential friend. Enjoy the experience. Smile. Being a warm, caring human being goes a long way. And if you come from that place within yourself — the happy, joyful place — you’re much more likely to look at someone exactly where they’d prefer to be looked at. It’s just nature (of course, if you’re working with someone whose culture is completely foreign to your own, it’s just polite to learn a bit about that culture in advance.

    • Claire, thanks much for your comment. Like you, I’m a huge believer in authenticity and sincerity. Unfortunately, what’s “natural” for some folks can be problematic when communicating with others.

      Early in my career, I learned about two serious body language problems I had. While perfectly authentic, my body language was causing me big problems. Because of my eye condition, my focus point requires me to tilt my head back and slightly to the side to see a focused view of the world. Sadly, this caused people I was speaking with to think I was literally looking down my nose at them; some actually said that to me in those words. To address the problem, I learned to position myself carefully in meetings to give me a better sight line. In addition, I sacrifice having a focused view of other people in order to not literally look down my nose at them.

      Another body language issue I had I can attribute to my natural state as an introvert. My introverted body language included everything from hunched shoulders, to downcast gaze, to folded arms and crossed legs, etc. Early in my career, I learned about the importance of adopting a more open posture.

      Over time, my new and improved behaviors became natural and authentic. But, it took time and practice to get to that point. I knew I owned my new body language when, after speaking for an AFP chapter meeting, my host drove me to the airport. On the way, he said, “I wish I could be real extrovert like you.” I laughed. Then, I explained.

      So, while I agree with your point about authenticity, I’ll summarize my point by saying that rounding off some of our rough edges can be a very good idea.

  3. Dr. John Grinder, the co-originator of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) teaches that the simplest way of creating rapport with anyone is to be interested in them. Try it. Ask open questions, be genuinely curious. Listen to their answers (two ears, one mouth!). You will find as you become fascinated and engaged that “body language” and eye contact will take care of themselves – try being genuinely interested in someone all hunched up and looking at the floor.

    • John, thank you for commenting. I agree with you that being donor centered — being sincerely interested in the prospect/donor and listening — is critically important. I would just add that one way, in American culture, that we show interest in others is through appropriate eye contact. However, hollow efforts to manipulate people with body language will ultimately fail. On the other hand, authentic efforts to engage someone will be more successful if appropriate body language and eye contact support the message. My intention was not to overstate the value of eye contact. I my intent was to assert that it is part of the communications process whether we prefer otherwise or not.

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