do not look at me like that! Daily flag

It’s a phenomenon we’ve probably all experienced. You are in a crowded place surrounded by a crowd, and someone is looking you in the eye. I noticed it right away. In fact, it takes no more than a split second to register and process that eye contact.

What happens during eye contact from a psychological point of view? That’s what intrigues Anne Böckler-Raettig, a professor in the Department of Psychology III at the University of Würzburg (JMU). Social cognition is one of the focal points of her research. She has chaired the research group “More than meets the eye: Integration, Effects, and Disadvantages of Direct View Processing” since 2017.

Now, along with her team and scientists from the USA and Canada, Böckler-Raettig has decoded new information about how we process looks and facial expressions. Presenting the results of her studies in Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Emotional expression constitutes attention

“We were able to show that emotional expressions of faces influence how their gazes shape our attention,” explains Dr. Kristina Brill, first author of the study. What this means in concrete terms is: faces that show joy, feelings that express approach, attract attention when you look directly at the observer, that is, when there is eye contact (which also indicates approaching). The same applies to angry facial expressions because anger, from a psychological point of view, is also an approach-oriented emotion.

Attitude differs from avoidance-oriented emotions such as disgust or fear. In these cases, it is the avoidant gaze (and thus the avoidant stare) that attracts the observer’s attention the most.

Eye contact attracts attention with neutral faces

In a previous study, Böckler-Raettig and her team have already demonstrated that faces with neutral expressions attract an observer’s attention well especially when those faces are looking at them directly. Four pictures of a woman’s face were shown on the participants’ computer screen. The only difference was that some faces looked at the test subjects, while others did not. In addition, all faces had a small number 8 on their forehead.

“After exactly 1.5 seconds, we replaced the eight with letters. One of them was either an S or an H,” explains Böckler-Raettig. Participants were asked to respond as soon as these letters appeared on one of the four faces, by pressing S on the keyboard when they saw the letter S or H when the letter H appeared. Reaction time was the measure as an indicator of the level of attention.

The results of this study showed that although faces could be ignored in this task, subjects recognized related letters more quickly if they were presented with a face looking at them. why? “Because eye contact grabs our attention,” says the psychiatrist.

Anger and joy sign approach

But how do different emotional facial expressions affect attracting attention with a direct look? An interesting hypothesis about facial expressions and gaze direction suggests that looks and facial expressions have a particularly strong influence if they are identical in terms of ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’.

“For example, a cheerful face looking at you is identical in this sense because joy is an approach-oriented emotion and a direct look also expresses approach,” Brill says. Accordingly, the disgusted face looking away is also identical.

To investigate this effect, the team changed the design of the original study. In the new version, the faces changed from a neutral expression, when the eight were presented, to either an approach – or an emotional expression geared toward avoidance – in one series of experiences to anger or fear, in the other to joy or disgust.

With disgust, the avoidant look attracts more attention

A total of 102 people participated in this study. The results are clear: if happy facial expressions follow neutral ones and the look is directed at the observer, reactions are the fastest. The pattern reverses if the facial expression changes to disgust. Then the reaction is faster if the gaze is avoided.

To better understand these results, the team repeated this experiment and measured the participants’ eye movements. “We find the same pattern in eye movements as well: participants look faster and longer at happy faces looking directly at them, and participants faster at disgusted faces looking away,” says Böckler-Raettig.

Fast processing of expression and gaze direction

According to the psychologist, this pattern indicates that people can quickly and efficiently process and integrate facial expressions and the gaze direction of the faces. In fact, this integration process begins after 200 milliseconds or so after the stimulus is shown. The results also indicate that it is not the case, as is often believed, that looks are processed independently of context and always have the same effect. Even when it comes to basic operations like getting attention with a single glance, context plays a role.

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