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Carmela Gottesman, Amy Williams; Beware the watcher: The effects of direct gaze on attention to human faces. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):230. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/9.8.230.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
Viewers tend to pay attention to faces more than to other objects in some circumstances. But what characteristics affect this preferential treatment? While eye contact is established as an important factor in social interactions, little research has examined its effect on attention capture. In the present study, we compared performance for pictures of faces that looked directly at the camera and therefore at the participant (direct gaze), faces that looked down (averted gaze), and household objects. Viewers were asked to fixate a central image, which depicted either a “direct-gaze” face, an “averted-gaze” face, or an object. Then two pictures appeared, one to the right the other to the left. All possible combinations of the three types of stimuli where used. On 2/3 of the trials one of these pictures had an asterisk on it. Viewers needed to report the location of the asterisk, if present, as quickly as possible. The results showed significant faster reaction times when the target asterisk appeared on a “direct gaze” face compared to an “averted gaze” one. A preferential treatment of faces in general was also observed; viewers responded faster when the asterisk appeared on a face compared to on an object. There was no overall effect of the fixation image, indicating no special difficulty in disengaging attention from a direct-gaze face. It appears that when exploring our environment we will attend a “watcher” faster than other stimuli, but we can easily ignore a “watcher” when we need to.
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