Smile! Social reward drives attention

Recent work from the Attention & Social Cognition Laboratory at McGill University shows that experiencing socially rewarding acts such as praise or positive feedback during interactions can shape which events we pay attention to later on.

Study authors, Dr. Dana Hayward, Effie Pereira, Prof. Ross Otto, and Prof. Jelena Ristic, reported that after participating in a group social interaction, participants paid more attention to events that received social reward than events that received no reward. Furthermore, individuals with higher social intelligence reaped more benefits from the social interaction with larger social attentional effects.

These findings provide one of the first insights into how complex social signals available in the environment influence our cognition and behavior.

Hayward, D. A., Pereira, E. J., Otto, A. R., & Ristic, J. (2017). Smile! Social reward drives attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000459.


Reading the language of eyes

Recent work from the Attention and Social Cognition Laboratory at McGill University shows that how we ‘read’ others eye gaze cues is linked with our level of social competence.

Researchers have long been puzzled as to why research studies kept finding normative eye gaze reading abilities in individuals with disorders of social behaviour, like autism. After all, reduced social ability should be connected with how we extract social information from eye gaze, a powerful social cue.

Recent research published in Scientific Reports coming from McGill University’s Department of Psychology conducted with typically developing individuals is beginning to shed some light onto this issue. Drs Dana Hayward and Jelena Ristic, the authors of this study, hypothesized that instead of accessing the social content available from gaze cues directly, individuals with lowered social competence extract that information by paying attention to perceptual transients associated with shifts in gaze position (e.g., pupil motion).

The researchers measured social competence and gaze following in 132 healthy volunteers (64 males and 64 females), separating the contribution of social and perceptual processing on attentional behavior. The results indicated that more socially competent participants prioritized attending to social information conveyed by eye gaze compared to less socially competent individuals who prioritized attending to perceptual changes in gaze.

These results expose the links between subtle differences in stimulus perception and large scale social outcomes. They further suggest that understanding how individuals with autism access social information conveyed by social cues by eye gaze will be beneficial in further unravelling the mysteries of this prevalent disorder.

Hayward, D. A., & Ristic, J. (2017). Feature-and motion-based gaze cuing is linked with reduced social competence. Scientific Reports, 7:44221. DOI:10.1038/srep44221. 

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Assessing social ability: More complex than originally thought?

Recent research from the Attention and Social Cognition Laboratory at McGill University shows that measuring and assessing indices of human social behavior is more difficult than originally thought.

In a recent study in press with the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Dr Dana Hayward and her colleagues measured gaze following, or the spontaneous tendency to attend to where others are looking using an established experimental procedure and during an unconstrained real-life social interaction. To assess gaze following, the researchers recorded participants’ eye movements while they completed an experimental task and a real world interaction. Gaze following was indexed by how often participants looked in the direction of gaze cues displayed by either a schematic face on the computer screen or a real-life conversation partner. While participants followed gaze direction in both contexts, surprisingly, no reliable links were found within individuals across the two research contexts.

These results suggest that while laboratory tasks may provide a controlled way to measure gaze following, their measures may not track social gaze behaviors as they occur during real-life social interactions.

Hayward, D.A., Voorhies, W., Morris, J.L., Capozzi, F. & Ristic, J. (in press). Staring reality in the face: A comparison of social attention across laboratory and real world measures suggests little common ground. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology.


Laboratory for Attention and Social Cognition

1205 Dr Penfield Avenue, Stewart Biology Building, Room N6/7, Department of Psychology, McGill University
Montreal, QC H3A 1B1
Phone: 514 398 1079

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