fb-pixel Skip to main content
Uncommon Knowledge

Eye contact: not so persuasive after all

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Eye contact: not persuasive

Tips on public speaking inevitably include one that’s supposed to be key to persuading your audience: Make eye contact. But in a new study, individuals who looked directly at the eyes of someone speaking about an issue—and with whom they didn’t already agree—were less receptive to, and less persuaded by, the speaker. The researchers speculate that the conventional wisdom about using eye contact to persuade is based on the fact that people spend more time making eye contact when they already happen to agree, leading persuaders to assume that eye contact makes a difference.

Chen, F. et al., “In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Charity for the dead

Disasters occur around the world all the time, drawing varying levels of news coverage, sympathy, and charity. But the degree of need doesn’t necessarily translate into how deeply people open their pockets. Researchers in the Netherlands found that one reason may be that people focus on the number of fatalities, as opposed to the (more relevant) number of survivors. An analysis of worldwide natural-disaster relief revealed that more than $9,000 was donated for each additional fatality, but there was no effect for each additional survivor in need. These donation patterns were also confirmed in experiments. However, the researchers also found that meaningful metrics of need (e.g., number of people left homeless) overcame the focus on fatalities.

Evangelidis, I. & Van den Bergh, B., “The Number of Fatalities Drives Disaster Aid: Increasing Sensitivity to People in Need,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Inequality is depressing (to women)

Amid the protests about rising income inequality in the United States, experts are beginning to study what it really does to society. New research makes the case for one side effect: depressed women. Researchers at Harvard analyzed data from a national survey and found that “living in a state with higher income inequality increases the risk for the development of depression among women,” even controlling for state-level factors like median income and individual-level factors like age, income, education, race, marital status, and depression-related history. State income inequality had no apparent effect on depression in men.

Pabayo, R. et al., “Income Inequality among American States and the Incidence of Major Depression,” Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (forthcoming).

Imaginative black kids face judgment

We all like to think of imagination as a wonderful quality in kids. A new study of preschoolers in Southern California, however, suggests that teachers are less receptive to this trait in some kids than others. Black children who demonstrated more imaginative and expressive pretend play in a standardized laboratory assessment were judged by their teachers to be more problematic, while nonblack children who demonstrated similarly imaginative and expressive pretend play were judged by their teachers to be less problematic, even controlling for child IQ and gender, family socioeconomic status, and teacher race.

Yates, T. & Marcelo, A., “Through Race-Colored Glasses: Preschoolers’ Pretend Play and Teachers’ Ratings of Preschooler Adjustment,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly (forthcoming).

Evangelical politics across borders

In this country, Evangelicals are known to be more politically conservative than other religious groups. But is this connection preordained—or just an artifact of how American culture developed? Political scientists at Presbyterian College compared survey data from the United States and Brazil—two countries with large numbers of Evangelicals—and found that, despite similar views on theology and social issues like homosexuality, premarital sex, and abortion (in fact, Brazilian Evangelicals are more likely to believe that abortion is never justified), Brazilian Evangelicals are significantly more supportive of the welfare state than American Evangelicals. The political scientists theorize that this divergence is caused by differences in the two countries’ partisan political environments.

McAdams, E. & Lance, J., “Religion’s Impact on the Divergent Political Attitudes of Evangelical Protestants in the United States and Brazil,” Politics and Religion (September 2013).


Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.