Follow my eyes carefully...and vote for me!

Apr 16 2012 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Uncategorized

Think of a political candidate you like. Maybe you agree with their politics. Maybe they have a very open and honest demeanor. Maybe they have lots of qualities that you think would make them a good leader. You would follow them if they led...but would you follow them if they looked?

Liuzza et al. "Follow my eyes: the gaze of politicians reflexively captures the gaze of ingroup voters" PLoS ONE, 2011.

This study is actually based on gaze direction in primates. Gaze direction, or following someone's gaze with your own, is a way of determining where their attention is, and also a very social maneuver. Monkeys have an automatic tendency to imitate the gaze behavior of others, and this is often very linked to status. So for example, a low status monkey will follow the eye gaze of whichever monkey it knows (all are higher status than he is), while a high status monkey will only follow the gaze of other high status monkeys. Following someone's gaze is a way to establish social identity, a way to say "I am like you".

But that's in monkeys, what about in humans? The authors of this current study wanted to examine whether humans exhibited this gaze following as well. But what should they use to test it? The authors decided on political parties. Choosing a political party gives you a sense of identity, and should hopefully give you a sense of identity with the leaders of the party you pick.

So the scientists took 15 left-wing and 13 right-wing voters (the study took place in Italy), and gave them a cognitive task. They were presented with a photo of a big political figure in Italy (Berlusconi and Vespa, who are right wing political figures, or Di Pietro and Prodi, who are left wing political figures). The photo had a big black square in the middle. After a moment, the square would turn either blue or red, and the participants had to pick either left or right, depending on which color the square turned, to get play the game correctly. But the outcome of the game wasn't important. What was important was the point 75 milliseconds before the square changed color, when people's eyes performed involuntary saccades, or quick movements to the right or left. The authors took these saccades and lined them up against where the politician was looking in the photo, to determine gaze direction. They then compared that to the political orientation of the participant.

What they found was that the saccades of the participants varied depending on what politician they were looking at. The right wing voters tended to follow the gaze of Berlusconi and Vespa, while left wing voters looked away. And the right-wing voters looked away more from the left-wing politicians (though the left-wing voters did not follow the gaze of the left-wing politicians very well).

So it looks like humans may also do gaze following of leaders whom they respect. Or at least, some voters and some leaders. The results appear strongest for the right-wing voters, and the authors hypothesize that this is because they are more loyal to their group and rely more on authority acceptance (though it could also be because Berlusconi was in power at the time). The effect was strongest for people who described themselves as most right-wing.

Of course, this is just pictures of a few politicians. It'd be interesting to see if the effects hold up in other countries, or perhaps in response to live video, which would have more real-time interactions. But in the meantime, politicians, make them follow your gaze and they might follow your lead!

Liuzza, M., Cazzato, V., Vecchione, M., Crostella, F., Caprara, G., & Aglioti, S. (2011). Follow My Eyes: The Gaze of Politicians Reflexively Captures the Gaze of Ingroup Voters PLoS ONE, 6 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025117

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