A novel approach to research, combining wearable eye-tracking technology and AI body detection software, suggests our eyes aren’t automatically drawn to the faces of passers-by as much as previously thought.
The Australian research findings could have a range of future applications in settings, ranging from clinical research to sports science.
Traditionally, researchers studying social attention – how we notice and process the actions and behaviours of others in social contexts – have mostly been limited to lab-based studies where participants view social scenes on computer screens.
However, the approach taken by researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of NSW (UNSW) could enable more studies of social attention in natural settings.
Detailed in Scientific Reports, the new method correlates eye-movement data from wearable eye tracking glasses with analysis from an automatic face and body detection algorithm to record when and where participants looked when fixating on other people.
“Studies of social attention to date are almost entirely based on people viewing images or videos containing other people on computer screens,” said Associate Professor David White, an author of the study and lead investigator in the Face Research Lab at UNSW Sydney.
“Surprisingly, little is known about how people direct their attention towards others in unconstrained natural settings,” he said. “This new method will help us to understand social attention beyond the lab environment and how it unfolds ‘in the wild’, with millisecond precision.”
While the advance is mainly methodological, the study’s findings revealed the 30 participants looked at the faces of just 16% of the people they walked past in a 20-minute circular route while wearing the mobile eye-tracking device. “
There were also significant differences between individuals in their social orientation, with some individuals looking at almost everyone they passed and others not at all,” Assoc Prof White said.
The reasons for these individual differences are unknown but prior work suggests that they could be related to people’s genetics.
LOOKING AT FACES IN THE WILD
Previous studies, which examined people’s eye movements as they viewed images of people on computer screens presented in lab-based research, show faces catch attention more than non-face objects.
“There’s some evidence in the literature that faces are more likely to grab our gaze when looking straight on,” Assoc Prof White said.
“But we found that although participants were more likely to look at a person when their face is straight on, they’re no more likely to look at the face per se, just that we were more likely to fixate anywhere on the person’s body.
This is additional evidence that faces aren’t automatically capturing attention as lab-based studies suggest.”
To gauge the possibility of bias, participants were asked questions during the debriefing to understand their awareness of the study’s purpose.
Only four participants mentioned attention to people or person perception as a potential research focus.
“The participants were naive to the aims of the study, which is particularly important in research like this where we don’t want to bias them towards looking at specific things in their surroundings,” Asoc Prof White said.
The research team is planning a follow-up study with a larger sample size to see if the findings generalise to a broader population.
“We want to use this new method to see whether the individual differences we found in this study replicate on a larger scale and if they are associated with other aspects of social cognition, such as a person’s level of social anxiety,” Assoc Prof White said.
Varela, V.P.L., Towler, A., Kemp, R.I. et al., Looking at faces in the wild. Sci Rep 13, 783 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/ s41598-022-25268-1