By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It is one of the most enshrined principles of human communication: The audience and the speaker should be locked in eye contact in order for the best persuasion to take place. Public speaking teachers give that advice to students and jury consultants give that advice to attorneys and witnesses: Look those jurors right in the eye. But a recent EurekAlert! on new research caught my eye. Entitled, “Eye Contact May Make People More Resistant to Persuasion,” the press release described a new study in the journal Psychological Science that seems to upend that time-honored principle. Using eye tracking technology, the experiment (Chen et al., 2013, earlier version here) demonstrated that the more research participants looked at a speaker's eyes, the less persuaded they were by the speaker's argument. This turned out to be true, both when participants were naturally observing and also when they were instructed to give the speakers eye contact. "Contrary to cultural belief and suggestions of some prior research," they write, "eye contact decreases the success of persuasive attempts."
I am all for new research overturning even the most cherished bits of received wisdom. But in this case, I don’t think these results should lead litigators to embrace a purposeful avoidance of eye contact in the courtroom. Instead, I believe that once the study and its methods are more fully understood, it carries a different kind of message for attorneys and witnesses in court. In my view, it speaks to how we interpret audience feedback, but not how we practice as speakers. That is, I think it gives us more reason to avoid overinterpreting a juror’s eye contact with us, while leaving alone the general, and in my view, very good advice for witnesses and attorneys to aim to maintain good eye contact with jurors.