Have you ever experienced that moment when you make eye contact with someone in a crowded place? It’s a fascinating phenomenon that happens in just a fraction of a second. But have you ever wondered what actually goes on in our minds during that eye contact? Well, researchers at the University of Würzburg, led by Professor Anne Böckler-Raettig are studying this and have uncovered some intriguing information about how we process gazes and facial expressions.
“We were able to show that the emotional expressions of faces influence how their gazes shape our attention,” explains Dr. Christina Breil, the first author of the study, in a university release.
For instance, joyful and angry expressions, which both signal an approach-oriented emotion, draw our attention when there is eye contact. On the other hand, expressions associated with avoidance-oriented emotions like disgust or fear attract more attention when the gaze is averted.
In a previous study, the team discovered that neutral faces looking directly at observers are particularly attention-grabbing. Participants were presented with images of faces on a screen and had to react quickly when specific letters appeared on those faces. The results showed that participants recognized the letters faster when they appeared on a face looking directly at them, demonstrating the power of eye contact in capturing attention.
So, what happens when emotional facial expressions are combined with gaze direction? The researchers hypothesized that congruence between the expression and gaze direction in terms of approach or avoidance would have a strong impact. For example, a happy face looking at you is congruent because joy is an approach-oriented emotion, while a disgusted face looking away is also congruent.
To investigate this further, the team modified their study. They changed the facial expressions from neutral to approach or avoidance emotions such as anger, fear, joy, or disgust. The results were clear: participants reacted fastest when happy faces followed neutral ones and made direct eye contact. However, when the facial expression changed to disgust, the reaction time was faster when the gaze was averted.
To gain a deeper understanding, the researchers also measured participants’ eye movements. The eye movement patterns confirmed the previous results, showing that participants looked faster and longer at faces expressing joy and making direct eye contact, while disgusted faces that looked away attracted quicker attention.