|“You should see what I’m looking at!”|
Our attention is pulled in the direction of where we see other people looking. It happens so automatically that experts have assumed it’s a reflex response, impervious to conscious factors, such as the particular identity of the gazer whose line of sight we’re following. But a recent monkey study challenged this interpretation: high-status macaques were observed following the gaze of other high-status, but not low-status, monkeys. Inspired by this result, a team of Italian psychologists have examined whether our attention is influenced more by the gaze of politicians whose political persuasion matches our own.
Marco Tullio Liuzza and his colleagues recorded the eye movements of 28 participants sat at a computer screen. Approximately half were right-wing and half were left-wing. The task was to make a fast leftward saccade if a central square turned blue, or a fast rightward saccade if it turned orange. The interesting twist was that this central square was located in the middle of the eyes of a politician, who was shown staring straight ahead. Just before the central square changed colour, the politician’s eyes shifted direction either in the same direction indicated by the square (potentially facilitating the participants’ own eye movement) or in the opposite direction. The faces that were used belonged to Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing Italian Prime Minister; Bruno Vespa (right-wing commentator); Antonio Di Pietro (current left-wing leader); and Romano Prodi (former left-wing Prime Minister).
The gaze shift by the political faces made no difference to the speed of the participants’ own eye movements, but did affect their accuracy. For right-wing participants, their accuracy was influenced far more by the gaze shifts of Berlusconi and Vespa (the right-wingers) than by Pietro or Prodi. The influence of Berlusconi’s and Vespa’s eyes was similar in magnitude. By contrast, the left-wing participants were not influenced by the gaze direction of the political faces, left-wing or right-wing. Another detail was that Berlusconi’s gaze direction had a stronger influence on those participants who considered their own personality to be similar to his.
A potential confound is that Berlusconi wasn’t just a right-wing character, he was also Prime Minister at the time of the study, and his party was the leading party. His influence (and perhaps Vespa’s, by association) on right-wing participants might therefore have been related to his position of authority, not just his political leanings. Certainly past research has shown that conservatives are more sensitive to authority than liberals.
Specifically on the reason why left-wingers weren’t influenced by Berlusconi’s gaze – Liuzza and his team said this was consistent with “studies showing that Italian left-wing voters detest the right-wing leader.”
The researchers concluded that their study shows how: “… a sophisticated blend of situational and dispositional factors underlies the capture of reflexive gaze-following exerted on voters by the gaze of politicians. Future studies on the plasticity of this effect may provide new insights in the fundamental aspect of the human tendency to coalesce in large groups and complex societies.”
Liuzza, M., Cazzato, V., Vecchione, M., Crostella, F., Caprara, G., and Aglioti, S. (2011). Follow My Eyes: The Gaze of Politicians Reflexively Captures the Gaze of Ingroup Voters. PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025117