You know how when you’re in an elevator or an underground train, everybody seems to try their darnedest not to look anyone else in the eye. This everyday experience completely contradicts hundreds of psychology studies conducted in the lab, which show how rapidly our attention is drawn to other people’s faces and especially their eyes.
Why the contradiction? Because psychologists have used pared down, highly controlled situations to study where people look, often involving faces and social scenes presented on a computer screen. And crucially, when participants look at a monitor, they generally know that the other person can’t look back. In real life, things get more complicated – we might not want to engage in eye contact for all the social messages that can send.
Now psychologists are realising it’s time to step out of the lab to see how social attention operates in the real world. One step at a time though – they’ve still kept things fairly basic. Kaitlin Laidlaw and her colleagues rigged 26 student participants up with a mobile eye-tracking head-set and had them sit in a waiting room for a short time.
There was some minor trickery. The participants thought they were waiting for a navigation task, in which their eye movements would be recorded as they went from room to room. That really did happen, but first, for two minutes, whilst an experimenter went to fetch an instruction sheet, the participants’ eye movements were recorded for the purposes of the current study.
For half the participants, another student (female, aged 24, and actually an assistant working for the researchers) was sat nearby, fifty inches to the left and 40 inches in front. She was filling in a questionnaire quietly and looked directly at them, with a neutral expression, three times during the two-minute wait. For the other participants, no other person was physically present, but there was a TV monitor located a similar distance away to the right, on which was shown a student filling in a questionnaire (this was the same person as in the other condition, behaving in exactly the same way). The question – how would the participants’ head and eye movements differ between the groups?
The participants in the video condition looked at the other student (shown on the monitor) far more often than they looked at a blank computer monitor located elsewhere in the room, and far more often than the participants in the physical presence condition looked at the student sat near them. In fact, the participants in the latter condition didn’t look at the physically present student any more than they looked at a blank computer monitor in the room. ‘Through the simple act of introducing the potential for social interaction, visual behaviour changed dramatically,’ the researchers said.
A further detail was that participants who scored lower on a self-report measure of social skills tended to look more at the other student in the physically present condition. The researchers said this association could be because of their reduced awareness of social etiquette, and could help explain why studies of people diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders have identified anomalies in social attention in real world scenarios, but have often failed to find them in the lab (looking behaviour was unrelated to self-reported social skills in the video monitor condition).
This study is just the start – all sorts of questions remain unanswered, from the effect of wearing sunglasses, so your gaze can’t be seen, to cross-cultural comparisons. ‘It is important to note that our results do not imply that humans do not possess a bias in real life to attend to other people, as the video-taped confederate condition clearly demonstrates that we do,’ the researchers said. ‘However, our live-confederate condition provides strong evidence that this behaviour is malleable, and can be influenced by the opportunity for an interaction with the other individual.’
Laidlaw, K., Foulsham, T., Kuhn, G., and Kingstone, A. (2011). Potential social interactions are important to social attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (14), 5548-5553 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1017022108 [Hat tip: Sarcastic_f]
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.