Direct Gaze Briefly Disrupts Visual Working Memory

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Posted on 07 September 2016

Research from Keele University and University of Birmingham has found that people are less able to recall the colour of the shirts others are wearing when others look directly at them.

“We found that people briefly lose the ability to encode colour information when task-irrelevant direct gaze is present,” explained Dr Jessica Wang, Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Keele University.

Using a change detection task, a typical measure for visual working memory, participants were shown 3-4 avatars wearing different shirts and tasked to detect changes in the colour of the avatars’ shirts, so that the avatars’ eye gaze was entirely irrelevant for the task at hand.

When participants were given 100ms to encode, they did significantly worse when the avatars were looking at them compared to looking away. However, their performance recovered when participants were allowed 400ms to encode, as this gave them enough time to make a second saccade and disengage from the avatars’ direct gaze.

Dr Wang added, “I think this is because direct gaze is an important social signal, with potential evolutionary roots for detecting threat. Therefore our attention is naturally drawn to direct gaze in the first instance. However, it is also important to be able to disengage from someone’s ‘stare’, and swiftly decide whether the stare is relevant, otherwise humans would not be able to function!”

You can read the paper in full on Springer Link