The effect of non-communicative eye movements on joint attention

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Eye movements provide important signals for joint attention. However, those eye movements that indicate bids for joint attention often occur among non-communicative eye movements. This study investigated the influence of these non-communicative eye movements on subsequent joint attention responsivity. Participants played an interactive game with an avatar which required both players to search for a visual target on a screen. The player who discovered the target used their eyes to initiate joint attention. We compared participants’ saccadic reaction times (SRTs) to the avatar’s joint attention bids when they were preceded by non-communicative eye movements that predicted the location of the target (Predictive Search), did not predict the location of the target (Random Search), and when there were no non-communicative eye gaze movements prior to joint attention (No Search). We also included a control condition in which participants completed the same task, but responded to a dynamic arrow stimulus instead of the avatar’s eye movements. For both eye and arrow conditions, participants had slower SRTs in Random Search trials than No Search and Predictive Search trials. However, these effects were smaller for eyes than for arrows. These data suggest that joint attention responsivity for eyes is relatively stable to the presence and predictability of spatial information conveyed by non-communicative gaze. Contrastingly, random sequences of dynamic arrows had a much more disruptive impact on subsequent responsivity compared with predictive arrow sequences. This may reflect specialised social mechanisms and expertise for selectively responding to communicative eye gaze cues during dynamic interactions, which is likely facilitated by the integration of ostensive eye contact cues.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2389-2402
Number of pages14
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number12
Early online date5 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020


  • joint attention
  • eye tracking
  • eye gaze
  • social interaction
  • social cognition


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