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The Detection Of Gaze Direction: A Stare-In-The-Crowd Effect

Michael von Grünau, Christina Anston

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A visual-search paradigm was used to explore the relative ease with which the direction of gaze can be detected. Straight-gaze stimuli were presented as targets within a variable number of distractors with left-averted or right-averted gaze. Reaction time in this case was compared with that when either the left-averted or right-averted gaze stimuli were the targets among distractors of the two remaining gaze directions. The data were examined for the existence of a search asymmetry favoring the straight-gaze targets. Such an asymmetry was found with stimuli that were realistically drawn renditions of pairs of human eyes, as well as with similar schematic stimuli representing pairs of human eyes. The asymmetry, however, was not found with geometric control stimuli, which also presented the critical feature in the central, the left-lateral, or the right-lateral position within the stimulus, but were not eyelike. It was also not found for schematic stimuli consisting of only one eye. It was concluded that the straight gaze direction is a special stimulus with eyelike stimuli, which the visual system is set up to process faster and with fewer errors than averted gaze directions. The results are discussed in terms of the evolutionary significance of the straight gaze direction.