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Learning under your gaze: the mediating role of affective arousal between perceived direct gaze and memory performance


Previous studies have shown that cognitive performance can be affected by the presence of an observer and self-directed gaze. We investigated whether the effect of gaze direction (direct vs. downcast) on verbal memory is mediated by autonomic arousal. Male participants responded with enhanced affective arousal to both male and female storytellers’ direct gaze which, according to a path analysis, was negatively associated with the performance. On the other hand, parallel to this arousal-mediated effect, males’ performance was affected by another process impacting the performance positively and suggested to be related to effort allocation on the task. The effect of this process was observed only when the storyteller was a male. The participants remembered more details from a story told by a male with a direct vs. downcast gaze. The effect of gaze direction on performance was the opposite for female storytellers, which was explained by the arousal-mediated process. Surprisingly, these results were restricted to male participants only and no effects of gaze were observed among female participants. We also investigated whether the participants’ belief of being seen or not (through an electronic window) by the storyteller influenced the memory and arousal, but this manipulation had no effect on the results.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    The means (SDs) and ranges of the raw scores for each story were as follows: A: 23.2 (7.2), 8–37; B: 21.9 (5.9), 11–39; C: 25.9 (7.5), 7–39; D: 24.0 (6.2), 10–36. The story C was significantly easier than the story A (t(40) = −2.52, p = 0.016) and the story B (t(40) = −3.73, p = 0.001). Story B was also significantly more difficult than story D (t(40) = −2.18, p = 0.035).

  2. 2.

    The overall indices of model fit, based on the sum of these two Χ 2 values, also indicated a good fit (Χ 2 = 0.92, df = 4, p = 0.915; RMSEA = 0.000; CFI = 1.00; SRMR = 0.01, Hu & Bentler, 1999).


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We would like to thank Essi Laitinen, Jonne Hietanen and Aki Myllyneva for their assistance in data collection. This work was supported by National Doctoral Programme of Psychology (T.M.H) and the Academy of Finland (project # 266187 to J.K.H).

Conflict of interest

The authors have declared that no conflict of interest exists.

Ethical standards

Informed, written consent was obtained from each participant in the beginning of the experimental procedure. The ethical statement for the study was obtained from the Tampere Area Ethical Review Board, and the study has therefore been performed in accordance with the ethical standards laid down in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments.

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Correspondence to Terhi M. Helminen.

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Helminen, T.M., Pasanen, T.P. & Hietanen, J.K. Learning under your gaze: the mediating role of affective arousal between perceived direct gaze and memory performance. Psychological Research 80, 159–171 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-015-0649-x

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  • Memory Performance
  • Male Participant
  • Skin Conductance
  • Belief Condition
  • Skin Conductance Response