Birmingham, E., Bischof, W. F. and Kingstone, A. (2008). Social attention and real world scenes: The roles of action, competition and social content. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61, 986-998.

The present study examined how social attention is influenced by social content and the presence of items that are available for attention. We monitored observers' eye movements while they freely viewed real world social scenes containing either one or three people situated among a variety of objects. Building from the work of Yarbus (1967) we hypothesized that observers would demonstrate a preferential bias to fixate the eyes of the people in the scene, although other items would also receive attention. In addition, we hypothesized that fixations to the eyes would increase as the social content (i.e. number of people) increased. Both hypotheses were supported by the data, and we also found that the level of activity in the scene influenced attention to eyes when social content was high. The present results provide support for the notion that the eyes are selected by others in order to extract social information. Our study also suggests a simple and surreptitious methodology for studying social attention to real world stimuli in a range of populations, such as those with autism spectrum disorders.

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