Social Beliefs and Visual Attention: How the Social Relevance of a Cue Influences Spatial Orienting

Cognitive Science 42 (S1):161-185 (2018)
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We are highly tuned to each other's visual attention. Perceiving the eye or hand movements of another person can influence the timing of a saccade or the reach of our own. However, the explanation for such spatial orienting in interpersonal contexts remains disputed. Is it due to the social appearance of the cue—a hand or an eye—or due to its social relevance—a cue that is connected to another person with attentional and intentional states? We developed an interpersonal version of the Posner spatial cueing paradigm. Participants saw a cue and detected a target at the same or a different location, while interacting with an unseen partner. Participants were led to believe that the cue was either connected to the gaze location of their partner or was generated randomly by a computer (Experiment 1), and that their partner had higher or lower social rank while engaged in the same or a different task (Experiment 2). We found that spatial cue‐target compatibility effects were greater when the cue related to a partner's gaze. This effect was amplified by the partner's social rank, but only when participants believed their partner was engaged in the same task. Taken together, this is strong evidence in support of the idea that spatial orienting is interpersonally attuned to the social relevance of the cue—whether the cue is connected to another person, who this person is, and what this person is doing—and does not exclusively rely on the social appearance of the cue. Visual attention is not only guided by the physical salience of one's environment but also by the mental representation of its social relevance.



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