If you want to persuade a woman, look straight at her

[This article was originally published in April, 2007]

ResearchBlogging.orgThere 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]

Jeremy N. Bailenson, Andrew C. Beall, Jack Loomis, Jim Blascovich, Matthew Turk (2005). Transformed Social Interaction, Augmented Gaze, and Social Influence in Immersive Virtual Environments Human Communication Research, 31 (4), 511-537 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.2005.tb00881.x

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As more such research is done and publicized, more people are aware of the findings. Some will then start to use that knowledge to their advantage. Some others may become aware that they are being manipulated. It's a type of arms race, I suppose, and it may arrive at a standoff.

Personal anecdote - I was in a 4-person meeting which was trying to resolve some differences. At one point, someone said (only semi-facetiously, I judged): "By the way, don't think that I'm feeling defensive because I'm leaning back in my chair and crossing my arms. I'm having back problems, and that's the most comfortable way for me to sit in these miserable chairs."

Is there any research about faking body language and how effective such a tactic is?

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 07 Aug 2008 #permalink

This seems like very interesting research, but I am slightly bemused my your graph axis. What exactly is an 'agreement score'? No offence intended, it's just at the moment your graph only has tiny numbers on it and doesn't look terribly impressive.

Lab Rat-

The graph axis comes from the "Agreement score" comes from the measure they used in the study. Subjects rated on a scale from -3 (minimal agreement) to +3 (maximum agreement) how much they agreed with individual statements from the presenter. These agreements were averaged to get the score displayed above.

I personally am interested in why they used an absolute score rather than a change score (i.e. does your agreement with a statement from pre-presentation to post-presentation?). While there are some issues with change-scores statistically it seems like that would be more appropriate for a test of "persuasion."

By Scott Hinze (not verified) on 07 Aug 2008 #permalink

It looks like the ratio of women's agreement score compared to men's stays relatively equal in all three scenarios, so the ratio of the sway in the augmented situation would be close to equal.

Do we need to be educating speakers to change their presentation style or do we need to be educating women to be less fooled by a direct gaze??

It might be helpful if you reported what topic the male was presenting about. Looks like the women were really skeptical about what he was presenting about unless he was looking directly at them. Why didn't the researchers try the opposite: a female presenter with male subjects? Isn't that a little sexist? Especially given the topic you mentioned at the end of the review! To me that's like only asking women to take math tests in bathing suits. no fair!

And that explains everything. When I think someone takes attention to me over the whole room... you know, you feel special, right... and then your easily duped.

I know someone who is guilty of this many times and there is a slight chance he's looking here, but I don't really care.

It made me ace the course, enough said. Made me pay attention a little bit more... I'm easily distracted, I suppose, but I do learn well... and I've known this tactic all along, and I'm sure he knows of it as well.

Makes me wonder of the topic of the presentation, though, as well as the personality traits and backgrounds of the participants. If it's something touchy to one of them, male or female, they are not going to be happy with it at all.

I agree with the other commenters on having the gender switched up... the female presentating (a very attractive one at that, too...) and the guys paying attention. I'm sure they would say yes and agree with her on anything she says! Giving attention would only make it worse for all of them involved!

How interesting! You are aware that feminist writers occasionally talk about the "male gaze" (aka: "visual harassment" (seriously!)) and the power thereof.

Now we see experimental proof that the men honestly don't know what those ladies are talking about. Being gazed at did not affect them - at least, not to the same degree.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 09 Aug 2008 #permalink

I read the study and the topic is about "letting carefully selected inmates finish their last months of sentences on electronic monitoring". It also includes phrases like "Any slip-up would send them back to the institution. The program poses no danger to the public.", which, despite the last sentence, will focus people on potential danger.

I'd say this topic and the situation indeed suggests a plausible alternative explanation: women disagree on the topic more than men, because they fear crime more (this could be an assumption driven by gender stereotypes, though; forgive me, if it is). Additionally, given the topic, a male avatar staring at you (a woman), consistently, throughout the entire conversation, without interuption, could come across quite intimidating, in my opinion. Agreement may be driven more by anxiousness, and could very well be public agreement, while privately there is still disagreement (i.e., no true persuasion). Poorer memory could also be the consequency of negative arousal evoked by feeling intimidated.

Additionally, another problem is the topic is stereotypically perceived as a domain where males have more expertise(and please note, stereotypically perceived, I'm not even suggesting it actually is).

I'd like to see replications where 1) the topic is neutral; 2) the topic is neutral, and varying gender of presenter (as also suggested by previous commenters) to match/mistmatch the participant (i.e., in terms of presenter/participants, I'd like to see a design male/male, female/male, male/female, female/female); 3) the topic is one stereotypically perceived as a domain where women have more expertise.

And indeed: premeasures and postmeasures to look at attitude-change would be nice. As well as measuring mood and see if it's affected, and what happens when it is statistically controled for. And I wonder, too, how participants would perceive the presenter. Someone who stares at you 100% of the time, I'd find that very, very odd. I wonder what impression such a presenter would make on me, irrespective of how persuasive he is.

By Rob de Vaan (not verified) on 09 Aug 2008 #permalink

Did I miss something? Is this blog for men only? Because if it's not, then why the headline, "If you want to persuade a woman, look straight at her." Sort of implies a male audience, dun't it?

It is interesting that so many commenters assumed the presenter is male, although the presenters' gender was *not mentioned* in the article above. The abstract of the research article refers to the presenter as "him or her". I assume this means that the presenter was sometimes a man and sometimes a woman.

As a female who has had to do my share of persuasion in a work setting with a staff of women, I know for a fact based on experience that making eye contact and "personalizing" the message makes for a better "depth of penetration". Gender of the presentor has little to do with the acceptance of the message in most instances. Yes, for some women there will be some intimidation going on, but, in the majority of cases, women know when they are being harassed and their hackles go up. It's a defense mechanism. Don't patronize females with this "male presentor having an advantage in persuasion with women over female presentor" crap. Why in the heck do you think we adjourn to the bathrooms together to do, you male idiots? There's a lot of discussions going on in there and it is NOT about YOU.
Sheesh, do you miss out when you go to the golf course!

Most commenters seem to assume that women must have been intimidated in order to be persuaded. Could it not be the case that women are more perceptive when it comes to body language, and that direct eye contact is (maybe) an indication of veracity (or, at the very least, avoided eye contact an indication of mendacity?).