I read about an interesting study on eye contact that was posted today on the legal writing listserv, “Why Eye Contact Can Fail to Win People Over.” The article refers to a study conducted in Germany where university students were polled about their opinions on controversial topics and then asked to watch a two-minute video on these topics. When the students agreed with viewpoint being expressed, they were more likely to look at the eyes of the speaker expressing the opinion, and less likely when they disagreed or felt neutral.
The students were also less likely to change their opinions, as measured in a second poll, when they looked directly in the speakers’ eyes. This was particularly true when the person in the video looked directly at viewers, rather than to the side of the frame.
Then in a second study, students were asked to look either at a person’s eyes or mouth.
The students who looked at the speakers’ eyes changed their attitudes less than the people who looked at the speakers’ mouths. They also said they were less interested in hearing more about the views presented.
Professor Mary Bowman from Seattle University posted the article and suggested a possible connection to oral advocacy. She said “[m]aybe one way to apply this research to the advice we give our students is to talk about eye contact as being less about a direct ‘eye-lock’ with the judge and more about looking at the judge to watch his or her visual cues and to be willing to engage in direct eye contact if the judge is as well.” Professor Bowman also asked “if the fact that the studies involved watching videos is a significant limitation.” She questioned if the video setting eliminates the need for the speaker or the audience to adjust their social cues.
I agree with Professor Bowman, and I would add that it’s important to factor in what is considered culturally acceptable eye contact in the place where a person practices law. I’m thinking about the country where my mother is from, where direct eye contact is very important to effective communication. In her country of origin, eye contact is a baseline of etiquette and respect—more so than in the U.S. To that end, I wonder if the results would be the same if this study were repeated in the U.S.
It may be helpful to tell students to maintain eye contact in a way that shows respect and friendliness. In other words, making eye contact isn’t enough—students/practitioners need to practice the right kind of eye contact and other body language cues that help the judges to relax and listen to the argument.