Social Psychology Eye
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Daily Archives: December 10, 2009
By Erica Zaiser
You know those moments when you are walking and someone else seems to be coming straight towards you. Don’t you hate when you both move to the same side to pass each other and then have an awkward moment where you almost collide? It usually ends with both parties engaged in that terribly uncoordinated dance, trying to figure out which way the other person is going to go. Or is that just me? But really, if you think about it, its pretty amazing how often we don’t actually run into each other. Most of the time when we walk down the street we coordinate our use of physical space with a total stranger pretty well, without saying a word, and we tend to do it very quickly. It makes you wonder, what are we doing to effectively communicate our intention to move left or right?
Research from the December issue of Psychological Science helps unravel this phenomenon a bit. In an experiment using eye-tracking, Nummenmaa and colleagues found that people use their gaze to indicate which direction they will travel. Conversely, you receive information from the gaze of an oncoming pedestrian and react by purposefully moving in the opposite direction. This might seem obvious but its actually an interesting finding because most past studies on gaze-following have shown it to be a reflexive social habit. In other words, when people look somewhere, we tend to automatically follow their gaze and look in the same direction. This research suggests that we might have two systems guiding our gaze -following: the first being an automatic response to follow the direction of a gaze and the second system based on intentions and goals, which allows us to interpret a gaze within a specific context. Thus, in the context of pedestrian navigation, gaze-following does not occur in its ordinary passive, automatic way… if it did, we might run into each other a lot more often.