It’s all in the eye of the beholder
The effect of personality on the social orienting of attention

Student Researcher: Evatte Sciberras-Lim
Supervisor: Dr. Lisa Jefferies
Ethics approval: 2013/075

We tend to shift our attention to wherever other people are looking, a phenomenon known as gaze-driven attentional orienting (Driver et al., 1999; Friesen & Kingstone, 1998). Gaze causes us to shift our attention primarily because we care about what is interesting and important to those around us. The automatic or reflexive shifting of attention in the direction of another person’s gaze has been studied through gaze cueing tasks, in which a face is presented in the center of the screen with the eyes gazing either to the left or to the right. This is followed by the onset of a target, and participants must either detect the onset of the target or discriminate between several different targets as quickly and accurately as possible. On valid trials, the target appears at the location indicated by the gaze cue. On invalid trials, the target appears opposite the gazed-at location. On neutral trials, the eyes gaze straight ahead, and the target appears randomly on either side. The task is to make a decision about the target as quickly as possible. Individuals are faster and more accurate at responding to targets at locations previously cued by the gaze (valid trials) compared to targets appearing on the opposite side of the face (invalid trials; Friesen & Kingston, 1998).

Previous research has examined the effects of the perceived social dominance of the facial stimulus and the emotional expression of the face on the effectiveness of gaze cueing. Research has shown that these two factors are extremely important in determining how much we pay attention to where any particular individual is looking. Why is this so? Historically, highly dominant individuals had greater access to resources, making them an excellent source of information regarding location of potential rewards in the environment. Consequently, faces with features indicating a high level of dominance (often, for example, faces with more masculine features) trigger attentional orienting more strongly than those faces with features indicating a lower level of social dominance. Emotional expressions displayed by the facial stimulus have also been evaluated as they provide valuable information about how people feel, and when combined with gaze direction, we are able to infer how someone feels about the object they are looking at. Knowing what someone feels about an object helps us gain valuable information about the surrounding environment without having to engage with the objects themselves. For example, seeing someone look at a plate of food with a disgusted expression might discourage us from trying it out, rather than eating it and subsequently finding out it tastes horrible.

Although features such as perceived social dominance and emotional expression play a critical role in determining the effectiveness of gaze cueing, there are also tremendous individual differences in how quickly people pay attention to another person’s gaze direction. The current research investigated how individual differences in personality influence how strongly we react to where other people are looking (i.e., the strength of gaze cueing). Specifically, the present research used the gaze-cueing paradigm (Posner, 1980) to investigate whether the personality of the observer would influence reflexive orienting to gaze cues, and whether the observer’s personality characteristics would interact with stimulus characteristics such as perceived social dominance (experiment 1 and 2) and emotional expression (experiment 2) to impact the magnitude of the gaze cueing effect.

Experiment 1

Experiment 1 examined whether personality characteristics influence the effectiveness of gaze cueing and how these characteristics interact with the dominance of the facial stimuli to moderate the effectiveness of gaze cues. The results showed that observer personality did not impact the magnitude of gaze cueing, although the effect of extroversion approached significance. Interestingly, the results also indicated that while dominance affects reaction time it does not affect accuracy. The effect of social dominance on gaze cueing was modulated by extroversion

Experiment 2

Experiment 2 tested whether personality characteristics affect the relationship between emotional expressions and gaze direction in directing attention. In addition, the relationship between the emotional expression and the dominance of the facial stimulus, and those two factors in combination influence gaze cueing, was explored. The results showed that showed that emotional expressions did not influence gaze cueing magnitude, nor did emotional expression interact with either personality or perceived social dominance.


Overall, the results provide some very preliminary suggestions that certain personality characteristics are associated with stronger gaze cueing. Also, observer’s level of extroversion and openness interacted with dominance of the facial stimuli to impact gaze cueing magnitude. The results indicate that differences in observer characteristics other than anxiety levels may have an effect on gaze cueing magnitude, which should be further explored.