In a new article in Current Biology, Andy Calder from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, together with researchers at The Vision Centre, University of Sydney reveal that, when in doubt about the direction of another person’s gaze, we are more likely to think that the person is staring at us, even when they aren’t.
Gaze perception is the ability to tell what a person is looking at. Although judging if others are looking at us may come naturally, it’s actually not that simple. To tell where someone is gazing, we look at the position of the person’s eyes and the direction of their heads. These visual cues are then sent to the brain where specific areas compute this information. However, the new study shows that when we have limited visual cues, such as in dark conditions or when the other person is wearing sunglasses, the brain takes over with what it ‘knows’ from past experience. To simulate these conditions, the study made it difficult for the observers to see where the eyes were directed so they would have to rely on their prior knowledge to judge the faces’ gaze direction. The results showed that our brains are hard-wired to believe that others are staring at us, especially when their gaze is uncertain. This shows that gaze perception doesn’t only involve a simple analysis of facial cues, but that our brains generate assumptions from our past experiences and match them with what we see at a particular moment.
There are several speculations to why humans show this bias. For example, direct gaze can signal a threat, and it’s important not to miss potential threats. So assuming that the other person is looking at you may simply be a safer strategy. In addition, direct gaze is often a social cue that the other person wants to communicate with us, so it’s a signal for an upcoming interaction.
Separate research has shown that people who have autism are less able to tell whether someone is looking at them. People with social anxiety, on the other hand, have a higher tendency to think that they are under the stare of others. So if the tendency to see others as looking at us is a learned behaviour, we be able to help those that show atypical perception of gaze practice this task.
The study “Humans have an expectation that gaze is directed toward them” by Isabelle Mareschal, Andrew J. Calder and Colin W.G. Clifford has been published in the latest issue of Current Biology. See: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S0960982213003321
The Vision Centre is funded by the Australian Research Council as the ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science.