Eye Contact On The Witness Stand: When Does It Help, and When Does It Not Matter?
A 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Criminal Justice and Behavior tried to answer the question, "Are men and/or women more credible as expert witnesses when they maintain eye contact with jurors?"
Now, these researchers didn't use actual jurors; instead they used the closest, easiest surrogates they could find: college undergrads (who were presumably getting extra credit for participating in the study). But, one of the lead researchers was Stand Brodsky, quite possibly the foremost expert in the US on what makes an expert witness credible.
In the study, groups of research participants, AKA the jury, listened to either a male or a female expert discuss a defendant's recidivism likelihood using the exact same script. In addition to manipulating whether a man or a woman presented the material, researchers had the "expert" engage in low, medium, or high levels of eye contact with the jurors.
Here is what researchers found:
1. There were no statistical differences between credibility based on gender (although the researchers also admitted there was a confound in their study design that kept them from being able to fully examine this question).
2. For women, there were no differences in credibility based on level of eye contact.
3. For men, jurors rated them as significantly more credible if they engaged in high eye contact than if they engaged in low or medium levels of eye contact.
4. There was not a "no eye contact" condition in the experiment, so it is not known if women are seen as less credible if they never look at the jury.
The takeaways from this research? Well, keep in mind this was one small study with a known confound, but it seems important for male experts to maintain consistent eye contact with jurors when testifying. Women can look at the jury a lot or a little; it doesn't matter as much for them. To be safe, they should probably take a peek every now and then, though.
Neal, T. M. S., and Brodsky, S. L. (2008). Expert witness credibility as a function of eye contact behavior and gender. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(12), 1515-1526.