Gaining Insight Into Mediating Parties’ Psychological States, Based on “Gaze Behavior”

Averting the gaze (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

A “listeners’ gaze behavior may serve as a readily observable and quantifiable marker of psychological states relevant for . . . mediators.” [Fn. 1, emphasis added.]

One day, back when this could still happen, I’m sitting in a waiting room with a bunch of strangers.  My seat is against a wall, with a television mounted on the wall above me.  All of a sudden, a controversial political figure comes on the television, making a speech.  I can’t see the television screen—but I can see the reactions of all the people in the room.

Here’s what I see:

  • Half the people start watching the screen immediately and intently and continue doing so for the entire time the political figure is on; but
  • The other half avert their eyes from the screen (looking down at the floor, at a cell phone, at a magazine—anywhere but at the screen) for that same and entire time.

It occurs to me, back then, that I could probably identify the political affiliation of each and every person in that room, based on their gaze behavior alone.

Turns out, I was right. 

A study [identified in Fn. 1] conducts two experiments and concludes that a person’s gaze behavior reveals a lot about his/her views and psychological state.   

First Experiment

The first experiment makes these findings:

  • Spontaneous gaze at a speaker’s eyes reveals psychological receptiveness—that the viewer agrees with the message presented; and
  • When participants disagree with the message, they are likely to look away—thus avoiding a negative experience.

Second Experiment

The second experiment instructs participants who view videoed speeches, (i) first, to maintain eye contact with the speakers, and (ii) then, to gaze only at the speakers’ mouths.

This second experiment finds:   

  • Participants whose views are opposed to those of the speakers are less swayed by the speakers’ views when, (i) maintaining eye contact, than (ii) when gazing at the speakers’ mouths;
  • That’s because “direct gaze is used across species in competitive or hostile interactions to assert dominance and intimidate others”; and
  • Additionally, the “default response to persuasion” toward an opposing view “is the generation of counterarguments.”

Study’s Suggestions

The conclusion of the study contains these two suggestions from the study’s authors:

  1. “[T]he very experience of meeting the gaze of a disagreeing other . . . creates a social dynamic characterized by resistance to persuasion”; and
  2. “[T]he common efforts of looking into the eyes of a persuasion target and demanding that this person return gaze may be counterproductive to changing hearts and minds.”


As the italicized quotation at the beginning of this article suggests, mediators (and all other participants in a mediation session) can gain insights from this study that are valuable to, (i) understanding the views and psychological states of mediating parties, and (ii) managing a mediation session effectively.  


Footnote 1: The italicized quotation is from the very-last sentence of a study titled, “In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion,” by Frances S. Chen, Julia A. Minson, Maren Schone and Markus Heinrichs, which is published in Psychological Science, 24 Sep. 2013, 24(11): 2254-2261.

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