Do other people's displays of emotion affect our gaze to them? An empirical study.

People's attention to others varies greatly depending whether they are face to face in the same environment or watching others on a screen. Our study shows that this effect is not only reliable, but also independent of emotions displayed by others.
Published in Social Sciences
Do other people's displays of emotion affect our gaze to them? An empirical study.

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In the doctor's waiting room, it is common practice to greet those people who are already inside, but then avoid looking at any other person. This is in line with social norms implicitly telling people not to stare at others and thereby invade their personal space. Such an inhibition of looks at others is not required when others do not know they are being watched, for example via a CCTV screen.

This social inhibition of gaze has been confirmed in previous studies (Horn et al 2022; Laidlaw et al 2011). Laidlaw and colleagues showed that participants avoid looking at a confederate when they are in the same room; however, they look extensively at the video of the same confederate playing on a PC monitor. Horn and colleagues showed that people looked more at the confederate in the same room when they thought their looks would not be noticed and there was no chance of social interaction occurring. For example, they looked at the confederate when she was speaking on the phone.

But what if the other person is displaying emotions? Emotional expressions may convey meaning that is relevant to others, e.g. if someone looks angry, one should probably avoid this person. It may therefore be particularly relevant to attend to emotions of others.

In daily life, others’ emotions may affect our behaviour towards them. However, in the past, most studies have been conducted in controlled laboratory settings often without real people present (Risko et al, 2016). As attention to emotion may differ between controlled screen situations and real-life social situations, we decided to investigate attention to emotional expressions in a realistic settings: a waiting room. Forty-eight participants were invited for a decoy experiment - watching an art exhibition. They were asked to wear mobile eye-tracking glasses, and they were asked to wait a few minutes in a waiting room while the experimenter finished setting up the art exhibition.

When the participants entered the waiting room, they either saw the confederate sitting on the other side of the waiting room (social condition), or they saw a screen playing a  video of the same confederate, which was recorded during a previous live session (non-social condition). They waited in the room for 3 minutes during which the confederate displayed a positive expression (e.g. smiling), a neutral expression and a negative (e.g. frowning) expression. Participants’ looks to the confederate were measured.

Our results confirmed previous studies: participants looked significantly longer and more often at the confederate when watching a video, than when they were present in-person in the same room. This shows that social inhibition of gaze is a highly robust phenomenon.

However, participants’ gaze behaviour did not differ depending on the emotional expression the confederate displayed. It seems that, in the social context, emotional expressions of the other person are not a valid reason to break implicit social rules and stare at a stranger.

In conclusion, emotions did not automatically attract attention in a waiting room. Our results highlight the relevance of conducting empirical studies in realistic settings to understand how our attention to others differs depending on the social context.


Pasqualette, L., Kulke, L. Effects of emotional content on social inhibition of gaze in live social and non-social situations. Sci Rep 13, 14151 (2023).

Horn, A., Mergenthaler, L. & Gamer, M. Situational and personality determinants of social attention in a waiting room scenario. Vis. Cogn. 30, 86–99 (2022).

Laidlaw, K. E. W., Foulsham, T., Kuhn, G. & Kingstone, A. Potential social interactions are important to social attention. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 108, 5548–5553 (2011).

Risko, E. F., Richardson, D. C. & Kingstone, A. Breaking the fourth wall of cognitive science. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 25, 70–74 (2016).

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