Beliefs about human agency influence the neural processing of gaze during joint attention

Nathan Caruana*, Peter de Lissa, Genevieve McArthur

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


The current study measured adults’ P350 and N170 ERPs while they interacted with a character in a virtual reality paradigm. Some participants believed the character was controlled by a human (“avatar” condition, n = 19); others believed it was controlled by a computer program (“agent” condition, n = 19). In each trial, participants initiated joint attention in order to direct the character’s gaze toward a target. In 50% of trials, the character gazed toward the target (congruent responses), and in 50% of trials the character gazed to a different location (incongruent response). In the avatar condition, the character’s incongruent gaze responses generated significantly larger P350 peaks at centro-parietal sites than congruent gaze responses. In the agent condition, the P350 effect was strikingly absent. Left occipitotemporal N170 responses were significantly smaller in the agent condition compared to the avatar condition for both congruent and incongruent gaze shifts. These data suggest that beliefs about human agency may recruit mechanisms that discriminate the social outcome of a gaze shift after approximately 350 ms, and that these mechanisms may modulate the early perceptual processing of gaze. These findings also suggest that the ecologically valid measurement of social cognition may depend upon paradigms that simulate genuine social interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)194-206
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2017


  • agency
  • eye gaze
  • Joint attention
  • social interaction
  • virtual reality


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