You can't resist the pull of another person's gaze

At just the moment the magician swaps the position of two cards in her left hand, she looks across deliberately and misleadingly to her right hand and your attention follows. You can't help it. You see where she's looking and your attention is sent automatically in the same direction. Magicians have known this power for centuries and now psychologists are confirming and measuring the effect under tightly controlled laboratory conditions. More surprising, perhaps, is their finding that the directing effect of arrows is also impossible to resist.

Giovanni Galfano and his colleagues in Italy instructed dozens of participants to look out for a small target that would appear on-screen, each trial, either on the left-hand side or the right-hand side. When it appeared, the participants' task was to press the space-bar key on a keyboard as quickly as possible.

To make things even easier, a word,"left" or "right" (in Italian), appeared in the middle of the screen giving the participants advance warning, with 100 per cent accuracy, as to which side the target would appear. In another run of trials, there was no need for advance warning from a directional word because the target always appeared on the same side.

The only complicating factor in this arrangement - but it's a crucial one - is that after the directional word had gone (on those trials where there was one), and before the target had appeared, a cartoon face popped up in the middle of the screen, looking either in the direction of where the target would appear, or the opposite direction. In other versions of the experiment, rather than a face, an arrow appeared, pointing either towards the side where the target would appear, or towards the opposite side.

The participants were told explicitly to ignore these faces and arrows. But they couldn't. When the cartoon face was looking in the opposite direction to the side the target appeared on, participants were significantly slower to spot the target and press the space key. And it was the same with arrows that pointed in the wrong direction. It's as if the faces and arrows had irresistibly grabbed the participants' attention and sent it momentarily in the wrong direction.

The slowing effect of the gaze and arrows was only a few milliseconds, but it was statistically significant. "The finding that the information conveyed by distractors interfered with the task indicates that orienting of attention mediated by both gaze and arrows resists suppression and can be defined as strongly automatic," the researchers said.

Galfano's team added that the processes underlying the pulling power of gaze and arrows are not necessarily the same. The pull of another's gaze is apparent in the looking behaviour of new-born babies aged just two days, suggestive of an innate mechanism. The power of arrows, by contrast, is obviously based on learned symbolism.

The researchers conceded that different results may have emerged in a more complicated environment more akin to the real world, something they plan to investigate in the future. Related to this, it's been shown that the social identity of a gazer influences the attention-grabbing power of their gaze. A study published last year found that right-wing participants were more affected by the gaze direction of Silvio Berlusconi than were left-wing participants.


Galfano, G., Dalmaso, M., Marzoli, D., Pavan, G., Coricelli, C., and Castelli, L. (2012). Eye gaze cannot be ignored (but neither can arrows). The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-16 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2012.663765

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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