Gaze control is an important component of social communication, e.g. to direct someone’s attention. While previous research on gaze interaction has mainly focused on the gaze recipient by asking how humans respond to perceived gaze (gaze cueing), we address the actor’s point of view by asking how actors control their own eye movements to trigger a gaze response in others. Specifically, we investigate whether gaze responses of a (virtual) interaction partner are anticipated and thereby affect oculomotor control. Building on a pre-established paradigm for addressing anticipation-based motor control in non-social contexts, participants were instructed to alternately look at two faces on the screen, which consistently responded to the participant’s gaze with either direct or averted gaze. We tested whether this gaze response of the targeted face is already anticipated prior to the participant’s eye movement by displaying a task-irrelevant visual stimulus (prior to the execution of the target saccade), which was either congruent, incongruent, or unrelated to the subsequently perceived gaze. In addition to schematic and photographic faces, we included conditions involving changes in non-social objects. Overall, we observed congruency effects (as an indicator of anticipation of the virtual other’s gaze response to one’s own gaze) for both social and non-social stimuli, but only when the perceived changes were sufficiently salient. Temporal dynamics of the congruency effects were comparable for social and non-social stimuli, suggesting that similar mechanisms underlie anticipation-based oculomotor control. The results support recent theoretical claims emphasizing the role of anticipation-based action control in social interaction.
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A stronger, more natural form of controlling another's gaze with our own gaze would probably be a setting in which a participant freely chooses to move his/her eyes (instead of being instructed by means of an auditory imperative stimulus) in order to guide the gaze of another person into a certain direction or to a certain object. However, the present study was based on a previous established paradigm and designed to address anticipation-based oculomotor control under maximally controlled conditions.
Note that we recruited 105 participants, but excluded data of four participants with an unusual high error rate (> 30% in at least one cell of the design). Additionally, the data of one participant was removed from analysis due to an eye tracking error.
For the sake of completeness, we also report the respective analyses for Experiments 1, 3 and 5. In Experiment 1 (upright face stimuli), neither the effect of experiment half, F(1, 19) = 2.57, p = 0.125, ƞ 2p = 0.12, nor the three-way interaction of congruency, SOA, and experiment half, F(2, 38) = 1.28, p = 0.290, ƞ 2p = 0.06, or any other relevant interaction revealed significant results (all Fs < 1). In Experiment 3 (inverted face stimuli) participants responded faster in the first versus second half of the experiment, F(1, 19) = 11.77, p = 0.003, ƞ 2p = 0.38. None of the other relevant interactions were significant, neither the interaction of congruency and experiment half, F(2, 38) = 1.85, p = 0.172, ƞ 2p = 0.08, nor the three-way interaction of congruency, direction, and experiment half, F(2, 38) = 1.66, p = 0.204, ƞ 2p = 0.08, or the interaction of congruency, SOA, and experiment half, F(2, 38) = 2.36, p = 0.108, ƞ 2p = 0.11. The four-way interaction was not significant, F < 1. In Experiment 5 (scrambled face stimuli) no effect of experiment half was present, F(1, 19) = 2.30, p = 0.146, ƞ 2p = 0.11. The four-way interaction was significant, F(2, 38) = 3.54, p = 0.039, ƞ 2p = 0.16. None of the remaining relevant interaction effects was significant (all Fs < 1, except for the three-way interaction of congruency, SOA, and experiment half, F(2, 38) = 2.96, p = 0.064, ƞ 2p = 0.14).
Please note that none of the statistical comparisons revealed significant results (all Fs < 1) when conducting a two-way repeated measures ANOVA with the factors task-irrelevant stimulus (direct gaze vs. averted gaze direction in Experiments 1 and 3; central vs. lateral effect direction in Experiment 5) and congruency (congruent vs. incongruent) separately for Experiments 1, 3, and 5.
Note that we only report statistical comparisons involving the factor experiment for the between-experiment comparisons.
We additionally addressed our claim that overall saliency of the gaze is reduced for photographic versus non-photographic stimuli empirically: In two short additional experiments, we compared the detection rate of direct vs. averted (left/right) gaze for photographic (upright and inverted) face stimuli to the detection rate of direct vs. averted (left/right) gaze for schematic face and central vs. lateral effects for abstract stimuli using the stimulus material from the current study. Participants either saw a stimulus presented for 35 ms at the screen center followed by a random pattern mask (scrambled version of the preceding stimulus) (Experiment A), or saw a printout of the stimuli (stimulus width × height: 2.0 cm × 2.6 cm) at a fixed viewing distance that was large enough to prevent perfect stimulus classification (3.35 m, Experiment B). Participants had to indicate the (gaze) orientation of the presented stimulus (left vs. direct/central vs. right, using randomized stimulus placement). The results confirmed our hypothesis that (gaze) orientation saliency is higher for non-photographic stimuli compared to photographic stimuli, as detection rate was higher for the abstract and schematic face stimuli compared to the photographic upright and inverted stimuli, t(19) = 6.85, p < 0.001, d = 1.53 (in Experiment A), and t(19) = 6.51, p < 0.001, d = 1.46 (in Experiment B).
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We thank Romy Mueller and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on a previous draft of the manuscript, and for stimulating fruitful discussions.
This research was funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), HU1847/7-1.
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The present study involved human participants. All procedures performed in the present study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.
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Riechelmann, E., Raettig, T., Böckler, A. et al. Gaze interaction: anticipation-based control of the gaze of others. Psychological Research 85, 302–321 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01257-4