Smilek, D., Birmingham, E., Cameron, D., Bischof, W. F. and Kingstone, A. (2006). Cognitive Ethology and exploring attention in real world scenes. Brain Research, 1080, 101-119.

We describe a new approach for studying human attention. This new approach, which we call cognitive ethology, focuses on understanding how attention operates in everyday situations and on what ordinary people know and believe about attention. We discuss how cognitive ethology is based on fundamentally different assumptions than those that underlie current cognitive neuroscience studies of attention. To illustrate this new approach we report a study in which we sought to understand what types of information people use when they infer the attentional states of others. In the study, two groups of participants viewed pictures of social interactions. One group was asked to report where the people in the pictures were directing their attention, and how they knew. The other group was simply asked to describe the pictures. We recorded participants' eye movements as they completed the different tasks and documented their subjective inferences and descriptions. The findings indicate that important cues for inferring attention include direction of eye-gaze, head position, body orientation, hands, and most importantly, situational context. In addition, the findings suggest the possibility that when participants describe social scenes they are actually inferring the attentional states of the people in the scenes. Finally, we discuss how the cognitive ethology approach differs from other approaches used in psychology.

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