Consciousness Blog 12 April 2015
Research carried out at Bournemouth University in the UK and led by Dr Nicola Jean Gregory suggests that people pay overtly less attention to the behaviour of others when they are in a richer social setting with them than when they are fewer social circumstances applying between them. This conclusion is the opposite of what would have been expected from most previous research on attention patterns in social situations.
The work is reported in: Reduced Gaze Following and Attention to Heads when Viewing a "Live" Social Scene by Nicola Jean Gregory, Beatriz Lopez , Gemma Graham, Paul Marshman, Sarah Bate and Niko Kargas, published in PLoS ONE 10(4). One group of participants watched what they believed to be a live webcam of two people in a waiting-room, thinking that they were about to meet them, while another group watched what they thought was a recording of the same scene, with no meeting to follow. The first group attended far less to the heads of the subjects, and followed their gaze less.
Dr Gregory said: "We thought that when participants believed that they would be meeting the people in the scene, they would have their attention drawn towards the faces of those people more readily, and look where they looked more often, than the other two groups, as the people would be most socially relevant to the participants. . . . However, we found the complete opposite. Regardless of whether they thought they would meet the people in the scene, when participants thought they were watching a live webcam they seemed to avoid looking at the faces of the people and hardly followed their direction of gaze at all even though the people in the scene could not see the participants. When participants thought the scene was pre-recorded, they looked at the faces and followed gaze direction of the actors much more."
Evidently, with hindsight, it appears that the behaviour of the observers was constrained by social factors when these were present. Unfortunately the experiment didn't attempt to determine how much of the aversive behaviour of the participants was conscious and how much purely reflex. The experimenters do comment that eye movements of the type being studied have traditionally been believed to be reflexive, and that their work undermines this belief. It would have been interesting, for instance, to post-interview the participants in order to gain at least a subjective account of their behaviour.
The word 'reflexive' however is not that useful: does it mean 'not under conscious control' or does it mean 'originating in sub-conscious motor regions'? But even the latter would have a causative mechanism in some other part of the brain. It might be thought that very little eye movement behaviour is actually consciously directed: one might be consciously aware of (attending to) a group of people and one might follow out a consciously formed train of actions including, for instance, a deliberate look at one person's reaction to a piece of, say, egregious gaucheness on the part of another; but all the while one will be making unconscious saccades as one keeps up with the developing scene. And that is not even to mention the control and formation of one's own participation in the scene. So a distinction between 'reflex' and 'conscious' or 'deliberate' is nearly hopeless. Gaze behaviour takes place in amongst a highly complex web of brain processes operating at various levels of cognitive thought.
Gazing activity is of course just one tiny aspect of a person's overall social behaviour, and it is well established that this behaviour takes place according to an individual's own conscious idea of herself, as well as being directed by subconscious agendas of which she may only be dimly aware, or utterly unaware. Deception, including self-deception, plays a large role in social behaviour. No wonder, then, that it should be difficult and complex to understand the underpinnings of gazing behaviour.
Read more in Chapter Eight of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Con Of Consciousness