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updated 10/29/2008 6:25:32 PM ET 2008-10-29T22:25:32

Videoconferencing is often heralded as the next best thing to being somewhere — a cheaper, simpler alternative to traveling in person to attend a meeting. Yet a small study raises questions about whether videoconferencing distorts interactions in a subtle but important way.

The study found that doctors and nurses who attended seminars via videoconference were more likely to be influenced by the charisma of the presenter. In contrast, people who were face-to-face with the presenter were more likely to base their judgment of the presentation on the arguments that were used, the researchers said.

Carlos Ferran at Pennsylvania State University and Stephanie Watts at Boston University quizzed 44 medical professionals who took part in early morning medical seminars via business-quality video links, and 99 peers who were in the room with the presenters. The subjects were asked about how likely they would be to refer a patient to the speaker at the seminar, and how likable they felt he or she was, among other things.

In their study published in the September issue of the journal Management Science, the researchers hypothesize that a videoconference is mentally more challenging than a face-to-face meeting. That leaves less brainpower left over to process the content of the presentation. Cues we use in conversation, such as looking at people's gazes to figure out to whom they are talking, are harder to follow in a videoconference.

The videoconference participants were more likely to report that it was hard to follow what the speaker was saying, and reported higher levels of stress during the seminars.

The researchers noted that previous studies in the field have shown mixed results for videoconferencing compared to face-to-face meetings.

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