Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifThere is a considerable body of research showing that eye contact is a key component of social interaction. Not only are people more aroused when they are looked at directly, but if you consistently look at the person you speak to, you will have much more social influence over that person than you would if you averted your gaze.

The problem arises when you address a group of people. How do you pick who to engage visually? Most public speakers are encouraged to look around the room, alternating eye contact with individuals in the audience. But there’s no way to look at everyone at once — so some of your potential social influence will by necessity be lost.

Now, a team led by Jeremy Bailenson has figured out a way to get around that limitation. In a virtual reality environment, there is no need for the representations of other people to be consistent. Since each individual’s virtual experience is generated separately, in a “room” full of people, each person could experience the phenomenon of everyone else looking at them. Everyone can be the center of attention, all at the same time!

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In the figure, person A believes that both B and C are looking at her. But in C’s virtual world, both A and B could be shown as looking at her instead.

Bailenson’s team wanted to see if they could use this method to allow one person to increase his or her influence over more than one other person simultaneously, by programming her “avatar” — the virtual representation of herself — to be looking directly at each of the others.


They studied volunteers in groups of two, along with a “presenter” who was actually trained by the experimenters. All three were equipped with virtual reality headsets that recorded their head orientation and displayed a corresponding visual image of the room. The presenter read 20-second persuasive scripts (advocating early prisoner release), then discussed the issues with the volunteers for 90 seconds. This process was repeated four times, for a total of about 8 minutes of interaction with each pair of volunteers. There were three different study groups, illustrated by the figure below:

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In the “reduced” condition, the presenter looked down at a computer screen. In the “natural” condition, the presenter established eye contact with each of the participants as the context of the presentation demanded. In the “augmented” condition, the computer created separate simulations for each volunteer, so that the virtual presenter was always looking at them, regardless of the actual direction the real presenter was looking. This meant, for example, that person A in our figure above would see B looking at her even when B was speaking directly to C. It must have made for a rather surreal experience!

After the presentation, all the volunteers were asked how often they thought the presenter was looking at them. Only in the augmented condition did they believe the presenter looked at them more often than the other participant. But none of them believed there was any computerized trickery going on. So was the augmented avatar any more persuasive? It depends on the gender of the observer:

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After the presentation, all the participants rated the presenter on a scale indicating whether or not they agreed with the presentation. While men weren’t persuaded significantly more in any of the conditions, there was a large increase in persuasion for women when the avatar of the presenter looked at them for the entire course of the experiment, despite the fact that this meant the presenter’s gaze behavior was often socially inappropriate.

So why are women more affected by the presenter’s gaze than men? Bailenson et al. suggest it might be due to the specific content of the presentation in this study — perhaps women are more afraid of crime than men. But more probably, the women were more focused on the presenter’s head movements while the men were more focused on the language. In support of this argument, the men did have a higher recall of the content of the presentation than the women.

As virtual environments such as Second Life become more prevalent, persuasive strategies such as this may also be employed more often, and users of these environments should probably take note.

[we've reported on other research by Bailenson here]

Bailenson, J.N., Beall, A.C., Loomis, J., Blascovich, J., & Turk, M. (2005). Transformed social action, augmented gaze, and social influence in immersive virtual environments. Human Communication Research, 31(4), 511-537.

Comments

  1. #1 Ryan Fox
    April 26, 2007

    I was watching this TV show about how to more effectively communicate with your children. (I’m only in my early twenties, but it was interested to listen to.) It said that boys will generally feel more anxious if you hold eye contact, and will prefer to “talk to the side,” without making eye contact. Girls are the opposite. They prefer (and try for) eye contact while having discussions, thinking you’re not listening or don’t care if you don’t make eye contact.

    They went on to say how this makes father/daughter and mother/son discussions difficult because of these innate preferences, and that to communicate better you need to sacrifice your own comfort to make the children more willing to talk.

  2. #2 Mike Riversdale
    April 26, 2007

    Of course this is generally applies to “Westernised” cultures, very different with Pacific Island nations, Asian peoples and a those that are shy :-)

  3. #3 Stephen S.
    April 26, 2007

    (I’m tired, so apologies if I’ve missed this in the text, but…)

    Your description suggests to me that there was one presenter. Was this presenter male or female? If those numbers were generated with a male presenter, what happens if you switch to a female presenter?

  4. #4 Alex
    April 26, 2007

    Ignoring the virtual environments for the moment. This would seem to suggest that during a talk to a large group and alternating eye contact among individuals in the audience, my eye contact is most efficiently used by looking at only the women.

  5. #5 Chris
    April 26, 2007

    They went on to say how this makes father/daughter and mother/son discussions difficult because of these innate preferences, and that to communicate better you need to sacrifice your own comfort to make the children more willing to talk.

    Heh – when I read this I could almost hear my mother’s voice saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”. All this time I thought it was an *intentional* pressure tactic (because, if it was obvious to *me* how much more stressful that is, it must have been at least as obvious to her… I guess that’s just one of the ways we humans fool ourselves by thinking other people’s brains work like our own.)

    Am I the only one who finds the idea of a VR environment where everyone is looking at you kind of creepy? Outside of a few special situations, I mean.

  6. #6 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 27, 2007

    Of course this is generally applies to “Westernised” cultures

    Oh, but there are differences here too.

    Before attending a project in US, we swedes had training by an expat. He explained that we had to stand closer and make much more eye contact in discussions than we were used to. And he was right.

    my eye contact is most efficiently used by looking at only the women

    My thoughts exactly. And it seems advanced VR may one day be more efficient than RL.

    So, what about sun glasses? Is that closer to a reduced or a VR situation, I wonder.

  7. #7 John Smith
    April 27, 2007

    Quote: Your description suggests to me that there was one presenter. Was this presenter male or female? If those numbers were generated with a male presenter, what happens if you switch to a female presenter?

    You’re bringing up an important point, I second the question.

    Additionally I think that the sample size isn’t large enough to warrant any global conclusions anyway ;)

  8. #8 jeremy bailenson
    April 27, 2007

    The gender question is a good one. We always matched for gender, such that half of our triads were all female, and the other half were all male. We never attempted to run “mixed” groups, though that would be an interesting follow up.

  9. #9 jeremy bailenson
    April 27, 2007

    In terms of sample size, we have now replicated this study on three separate occasions at different labs, and our sample size is up around 600. While of course this is still a small sample in the grand scheme of things, for a social science experiment it is above the median.

    jb

  10. #10 ADF
    April 27, 2007

    This reminds me of a specific tactic used in the Theodore Sturgeon short story “Mr. Costello, Hero.” In order to control people on a planet, Mr. Costello divided people over the issue of being alone, and eventually made it a crime for anyone to be alone. He employed a woman to speak to people over a holographic television set, but the set would display four images of the woman looking in all directions. One reason was so that the woman would not appear to be alone, but perhaps this could be another?

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    April 27, 2007

    Jeremy,

    You mention in the article that with a larger sample size you might find significant results for men as well — did you?

    Also, a general point about sample size: The fact that the results were significant means that the sample was adequate for the population studied. The reason you might want to increase sample size is to test different populations. For example, the results might hold true with Stanford students, but what about housewives, or garbage truck drivers? The ultimate sample would be a completely random sampling of world population (or whichever population you’re interested in).

  12. #12 Neurofreak
    April 27, 2007

    This research is quality! Bravo!

  13. #13 Dennis
    April 27, 2007

    I’m naturally inclined to make eye contact with the women in groups and avoid eye contact with the men in groups. As a man, I think I always assumed it was a sexual thing – I’m always more interested in female attention, and not at all interested in male attention. But a better explanation is that I intuitively noticed that women ignore you if you make little eye contact despite the subject you’re talking about being interesting to them, and men actually listen to all of your words if they care.

  14. #14 Jennifer Grucza
    April 27, 2007

    I tend to make a lot of eye contact while listening to someone, but I have the hardest time holding it when I’m the one talking. Probably makes me very bad at being persuasive with women, if this study holds true.

    Regarding the comment about Swedes above – I hate when people stand too close! I would probably be quite comfortable in Sweden. :)

  15. #15 fireweaver
    April 27, 2007

    i’m right there with Jennifer: if i’m *listening*, i signify paying attention by plenty of eye contact (in which case, i match up to my female gender predictions quite nicely), but if i’m the one speaking, i very much tend to “talk to the side” like one of the guys.

    what’s just as interesting & useful as the idea that the women perceived people to be more persuasive with eye contact is the converse. if i’m understanding the graph correctly, the *lack* of persuasiveness was even more pronounced than the enhancement.

    so, yeah, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”

  16. #16 Geel
    April 27, 2007

    too much self-conciousness.

  17. #17 Gregory Bloom
    April 28, 2007

    The description seems to indicate that in the augmented scenario, each listener was the ‘center of attention’, not only of the presenter, but also of the other listener. If so, then this may demonstrate that women are more susceptible to peer pressure, rather than the persuasiveness of the speaker’s attention. After all, if you’re in a situation where the speaker only has eyes for you, that suggests that the other listener is ‘already on board’, and you’re the only one who needs persuasion. If the other listener is also only looking at you, that reinforces this impression.

    It would be interesting to counter-balance the speaker’s attention with negative attention/body language from the other listener(s) and see how influential the speaker’s attention is against negative peer influence.

  18. #18 Dave Munger
    April 28, 2007

    Gregory,

    No, sorry if I was unclear. The presenter was the only avatar whose position was computer-modified. The computer displayed the two volunteer viewers’ actual movements.

  19. #19 Dr. Karen
    April 28, 2007

    Jeremy clarified:
    “The gender question is a good one. We always matched for gender, such that half of our triads were all female, and the other half were all male. We never attempted to run “mixed” groups, though that would be an interesting follow up.”

    Ahh…this gives me a completely different perspective on your results. It seems an overstatement to say that women are more easily persuaded by eye contact. What you actually found, according to this study, was that
    (1)women are more easily persuaded *by other women* if the woman maintains eye contact and
    (2)less convinced if *another woman* fails to make eye contact, while
    (3)*another man* holding eye contact does not seem to influence the listening men and
    (4) men are somewhat less easily convinced if *another man* avoids eye contact.

    It says nothing about their behaviours in more realistic and complex social or work group situations.

    And this may make sense from an evolutionary perspective – where women are more hard-wired to connect in groups of females and do things together and men are more hard-wired to do things “side-by-side”. Avoidance of eye contact by a same-sex speaker seemed to be a negative (in terms of persuasion) for both groups, but much more so for woman — who are more likely to look for connection as part of the message, perhaps.

  20. #20 Dr. K. C.
    April 28, 2007

    “We always matched for gender…We never attempted to run “mixed” groups”
    This was a great experiment and gives us food for thought. I would enjoy a follow-up if the presenters sex is mixed, the listeners sex mixed, and then what would happen if the non-augmented presenters were human instead of virtual.

  21. #21 Edsil
    August 5, 2007

    Eye to eye contact is generally perceived as a “disrespect” in Filipino culture and I think in other non-Westernized people too. Eye to eye contact is basically a very “AMERICAN” thing. Remember, that psychology developed a lot in an American context. Really, you will be surprised that in other cultures, it is something “invasive” or “aggression” on the sacred space of persons–a sort of DISRESPECT.

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