It’s All in the Eyes

A lot of research has been done on how we use our eyes in social situations. If we are talking to somebody and they suddenly look away in another direction, we might be inclined to follow their gaze. Why? Because it’s likely that they’re looking at something interesting. Indeed there are many researchers that think that this simple ‘sharing’ of gaze plays a key role in how we develop social skills in childhood. People with autistic spectrum disorders may have difficulties with this sharing of gaze and so this area of research has many important applications. However as with anything involving social interactions it’s less than straightforward. A twist on this story is that there we are influenced in our decision to follow the other person’s gaze by some powerful but simple factors. Some of these factors were identified in a study by Bayliss and colleagues titled ‘Predictive gaze cues affect face evaluations: The effect of facial emotion’ which is freely available here.

In their paper, Bayliss and colleagues begin by contextualising the present study in terms of earlier work in this area in their introduction. They highlight situations in which eye gaze takes on increased significance. For instance, the researchers note that

Magicians frequently use misdirection by using social cues in performances to remarkable effect

Their study includes a variation on an earlier study by the same group where they asked people to examine and respond to faces which were described as deceptive or trustworthy. In this study the group recruited 72 subjects with an average age of 20 years. They used a database of faces and without going into too much detail, the researchers used additional methods to organise faces into “happy, neutral and angry’. The subjects were asked to sit in front of a computer which then presented them with the faces as well as an object on the left or right of the face. The subjects were asked to press a button indicating which type of object had been presented with the face. They were also asked to choose the trustworthiness of a series of the same faces presented to them.

Again without going into too much detail, the researchers found that when the gaze of smiling faces anticipated the location of the presented objects they were more likely to be rated as trustworthy. Furthermore these faces were more likely to be used to anticipate the location of the presented objects – subjects responded more quickly to the object when it was presented in the direction of gaze of the happy face. However the researchers also found that if a smiling face was consistently looking in the wrong direction (compared to the presented object) they were more likely to be mistrusted than the equivalent angry or neutral faces. In other words, people are more likely to learn from a happy face but they also know if that happy face is misleading them and in those situations they will learn very quickly to mistrust it. However it would be very interesting to see if this holds out in real interactions. Also if this does hold up, then can the research be expanded to test how these factors can influence how quickly a person teaches or learns about their social environment. Such scenarios would offer fascinating insights into how the autistic spectrum disorders or frontotemporal dementia influence social learning.

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