Direct-Gaze, Eye Movements, and Covert and Overt Social Attention Processes

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Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics





The present study is a replication and extension of previous research examining the effects of others’ gaze direction and gaze shifts on both participants’ (N = 32) manual responses, as an indicator of covert processes, and their visual attention, as an indicator of overt processes, within an experimental response time (RT) paradigm, under both fixed- and free-viewing instructions. Participants viewed arrays of faces displaying direct or averted gaze, which shifted or held their gaze, concurrent with the presentation of a target letter that participants had to identify overlaid on one face, all while their gaze was recorded with an eye-tracking system. Participants’ RTs and eye movements both revealed faster responses when the target face displayed either direct or shifted gaze, and especially when its gaze had shifted from averted to direct, though these effects were modulated by the viewing instructions. Thus, the findings replicate and extend previous research by revealing that direct gaze and dynamic motion onset affect both covert and overt attention.

How social and nonsocial cues affect visual processes and social interactions are long-standing yet emerging areas of investigation. The physiology of the human eye makes it an effective communicative cue (Emery, 2000; Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007), and gaze direction serves productive and receptive signal functions (Duncan, 1969; Gobel, Kim, & Richardson, 2015). Productively, we intentionally direct others’ attention using our gaze (Böckler, Knoblich, & Sebanz, 2011; Conty, George, & Hietanen, 2016; Hietanen, Myllyneva, Helminen, & Lyyra, 2016; Langton, Watt, & Bruce, 2000; Nummenmaa & Calder, 2009; Otsuka, Mareschal, Calder, & Clifford, 2014; Sebanz, Bekkering, & Knoblich, 2006; Senju & Hasegawa, 2005; Senju & Johnson, 2009; Shirahama, 2012). Receptively, we infer others’ attention from their gaze direction (Carrick, Thompson, Epling, & Puce, 2007; Langton et al., 2000) and reflexively look where others are looking even when doing so is uninformative (Driver et al., 1999; Friesen, Ristic, & Kingstone, 2004; Kuhn & Kingstone, 2009).

Gaze direction also contributes more deeply to social interactions. Beyond following others’ averted gaze, perceived direct gaze, classified as eye contact in actual social interactions, has the phenomenal effect of activating social awareness and capturing attention (Conty et al., 2016; Kendon, 1967). Faces exhibiting direct gaze quicken facial recognition (Hood, Macrae, Cole-Davies, & Dias, 2003), and amplify emotional state awareness (Baltazar et al., 2014). These effects are so exuberant that they have been theorized to represent covert processes, operating preattentively, automatically, and beyond volitional control (Laidlaw, Risko, & Kingstone, 2012; Rothkich, Madipakkam, Rehn, & Sterzer, 2015; Stein, Senju, Peelen, & Sterzer, 2011; Yokoyama, Sakai, Noguchi, & Kita, 2014).

Dynamic motion onset also automatically elicits attention (Abrams & Christ, 2003; Kawahara, Yanase, & Kitazaki, 2012), and is oftentimes coupled with direct gaze in social communication (Hayward & Ristic, 2017), though few studies have investigated how gaze and motion onset cues combine to affect attention and cognition. Böckler, van der Wel, and Welsh (2014), however, explored this with a target detection task. Participants fixated a cross surrounded by four face images, two each displaying direct and averted gaze, and all with a letter overlaying the forehead. After a fixed interval, two of the faces held their gaze direction while the other two shifted to the alternative gaze direction, and, simultaneously, one of the letters was replaced with one of two target letters while the other three were replaced with a distractor letter. Participants identified the target letter faster when it appeared on a face that had shifted rather than held its gaze direction, displayed a held direct gaze rather than a held averted gaze, or transitioned from averted to direct gaze rather than from direct to averted gaze, supporting the predictions that direct gaze and onset motion both attract covert social attention.

Thus, leading theories suggest that we are drawn to others’ eyes and orient in their gaze direction, though how this occurs is not fully understood. It is unknown, for instance, whether others’ gaze direction and gaze shifts are subject to and influence both covert and overt attention, which we explore here by replicating Böckler et al. (2014), with novel manipulation and measure extensions. We manipulate overt attention by varying participants’ instructions. Böckler et al. (2014) provided instructions to fixate a centrally presented cross throughout their experiment, with the expectation that participants could and would do so, and observed effects were therefore inferred to have operated through covert processes. We will contrast participants we instruct to fixate a central cross and those not given this instruction. If effects of others’ gaze are entirely covert, then no differences should emerge between instructions conditions, because covert processes should be similarly accessible across conditions. By contrast, if direct-gaze and gaze-shift effects are influenced by overt processes, then condition differences should emerge. In addition, we incorporate eye-tracking measures to analyze effects on overt attention. We will examine the effectiveness of the instruction to hold fixation, and, more importantly, will test whether participants’ eye movements reflect previously documented performance differences. Thus, our goal was to illuminate the effects of others’ gaze on both covert and overt attention.


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