We report an empirical study of gaze deflection—a common experience in which you turn to look in a different direction when someone “catches” you staring at them. We show that gaze cueing (the automatic orienting of attention to locations at which others are looking) is far weaker for such displays, even when the actual eye and head movements are identical to more typical intentional gazes. This demonstrates how gaze cueing is driven by the perception of minds, not eyes, and it serves as a case study of both how social dynamics can shape visual attention in a sophisticated manner and how vision science can contribute to our understanding of common social phenomena.Abstract
Suppose you are surreptitiously looking at someone, and then when they catch you staring at them, you immediately turn away. This is a social phenomenon that almost everyone experiences occasionally. In such experiences—which we will call gaze deflection—the “deflected” gaze is not directed at anything in particular but simply away from the other person. As such, this is a rare instance where we may turn to look in a direction without intending to look there specifically. Here we show that gaze cues are markedly less effective at orienting an observer’s attention when they are seen as deflected in this way—even controlling for low-level visual properties. We conclude that gaze cueing is a sophisticated mental phenomenon: It is not merely driven by perceived eye or head motions but is rather well tuned to extract the “mind” behind the eyes.