A new study has challenged the prevailing notion that a person’s attention is easily captured by other people’s faces above all other objects.

The research, conducted by Bournemouth University in collaboration with the University of Portsmouth, tested three conditions in which participants observed footage of two women in a waiting room.

Two groups were told that they were watching a live webcam and either told they would or would not meet the women afterwards. Another group was told that the video had been pre-recorded.

“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,” said Dr. Nicola Gregory.

“We also expected that in the condition which was least like real-life, when people thought the scene was pre-recorded, they would look least at the faces of the actors and follow their gaze direction the least.”

The researchers discovered the complete opposite of their hypothesis. Regardless of whether or not they believed they would be meeting the people in the “live web cam,” the participants appeared to avoid looking at the faces of the people and hardly followed their direction of gaze at all.

When participants believed the scene was pre-recorded, however, they looked at the faces and followed gaze direction of the actors much more.

“Perhaps what we think we know about the way we view other people is wrong. As soon as viewing behavior is measured within a genuinely social context, the way we look at people changes, and rather than having our attention drawn towards them, we actually seem to avoid looking at those people’s faces,” said Gregory.

The surprising findings probably reflect the complex interplay of factors which are present in a real social scenario, which are absent in most experimental studies, notes Gregory.

These would include adhering to social rules and norms, or thinking about many different things at once, which causes us to look less at people than when we view pictures of them in the lab.

“Psychologists need to start taking this into account in their research, which is really very rare at the moment to make sure that what we find out from our experiments can actually be applied to real-life behavior. If it can’t then the value of it must be reassessed,” said Gregory.

Unlike previous studies in this field, Gregory’s research took place in a more natural and social context. It refutes prior work that suggests that people predominantly look at faces and automatically shift their attention in the direction that other people are looking.

The findings are published online in the science and medicine journal PLOS ONE.

Source: Bournemouth University