MN Senate, dogs, show us the path to civil politics

NPR has latched onto the biggest Minnesota controversy of the legislative session so far — eye contact.

You’ll recall that the Minnesota Senate had a kerfuffle a month or so ago because some senators were looking at other senators in the eye, rather than addressing their remarks to the Senate president.

Today, NPR embraces its inner Scandanavian, declaring that the Senate may be on to something the rest of the country might consider adopting.

But NPR tests the theory in the only way it’s possible to test political theory — with dogs.

There’s a common perception that looking a dog in the eye can make it uncomfortable. That would certainly bolster the Minnesota theory. But dog behavioral expert Clive Wynne at Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory said it’s more complicated than that.

“A dog that’s wagging its tail happily while it looks another dog in the eye is maybe communicating something friendly,” he said, “whereas a dog that growls and has its hackles raised in a very tense body posture — the eye contact may just intensify that threat.”

In other words, eye contact for dogs is like eye contact for humans. When there’s genuine good will, eye contact can be a positive thing.

So what can man learn from man’s best friend?

“What would be good advice for a legislature would be to encourage positive, friendly eye contact, and discourage more aggressive, intimidating forms of eye contact,” Wynne said. “What we found worked very well with dogs is small pieces of summer sausage. I don’t know whether that could be applied here.”

Here’s the thing, however: It was only 2013 when NPR reported that science said eye contact fails to win people over. That is to say: Not looking at someone in the eye might make for civilized politics, but it doesn’t make for more effective politics.

Researchers in Germany tested the power of the eye lock by polling university students about their opinions on controversial issues like assisted suicide, nuclear energy and affirmative action in the workplace.

They then had the students watch two-minute Internet videos of people expounding on the controversies. Eye-tracking machinery was used to measure where the students looked.

The students spent more time looking into the eyes of the speakers when they agreed with their point of view, and avoided eye contact when they disagreed or were neutral. “Persuaders may misattribute returned gaze to their persuasion skills,” the researchers concluded.

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.

This assertion, too, could be easily tested in the Minnesota Senate, where it’s difficult to get warring factions to agree, but at least they disagree nicely.