Don’t look at me like that!

It’s a phenomenon that we have probably all experienced. You’re in a packed place surrounded by a swirling mass of people, and someone looks you in the eye. You notice it immediately. In fact, it takes no more than a fraction of a second to register and process this eye contact.

What happens during eye contact from a psychological point of view? This is what interests Anne Böckler-Raettig, Professor at the Department of Psychology III at the University of Würzburg (JMU). Social cognition is one of the focal points of her research; she has headed the research group “More than meets the eye: Integration, influences and impairments of direct gaze processing” since 2017.

Now, together with her team and scientists from the USA and Canada, Böckler-Raettig has decoded new information about how we process gazes and facial expressions. She presents the results of her studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Emotional expression shapes attention

“We were able to show that the emotional expressions of faces influence how their gazes shape our attention,” explains explains Dr. Christina Breil, the first author of the study. What this means in concrete terms is this: Faces showing joy, an emotion that expresses approach, grab attention when they look directly at the observer, i.e. when there is eye contact (which also signals approach). The same applies to an angry facial expression because, from a psychological point of view, anger is also an approach-oriented emotion.

The situation is different with avoidance-oriented emotions such as disgust or fear. In these cases, it is averted gaze (hence, avoidant gaze) that attracts the observer’s attention more..

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