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What you don't want to do if you're trying to win someone over

Shy people have long been told that to make friends and influence people, they should learn to make eye contact.

But it turns out the strategy may be counterproductive, according to a new report from the University of British Columbia.

"There is a lot of cultural lore about the power of eye contact as an influence tool," said UBC professor Frances Chen, whose research is published in the journal Psychological Science. "But our findings show that direct eye contact makes skeptical listeners less likely to change their minds, not more, as previously believed."

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In other words, gazing at opponents is unlikely to make them see eye-to-eye.

Chen and colleagues used state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology to study eye contact in relation to the art of persuasion. In a series of experiments, they discovered that eye contact is only effective when the target of the gaze is already receptive to the speaker's point of view.

Skeptical participants were less persuaded by a speaker's argument the more they watched his or her eyes, Chen and co-authors found. In one experiment, however, participants were more likely to find speakers convincing when they focused on their mouths, not their eyes.

In a Psychological Science release, co-lead researcher Julia Minson of Harvard University's school of government said the findings suggest that eye contact can signal different messages depending on the situation.

"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," Minson said.

The authors concluded that while eye contact may enhance a sense of connection among friends and lovers, a steady gaze may be perceived as confrontational in situations involving distrust among primates and other mammal species.

Would-be seducers in the urban jungle should keep that in mind.

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After all, there's a reason hikers are warned never to stare down a bear.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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