There 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!
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:
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:
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.