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Distinguishing social from private intentions through the passive observation of gaze cues

The eyes are a flexible and powerful communicative tool. In triadic situations, constituted by two interactants in a shared environment containing some third object(s), gaze can help in coordinating actions towards each other or objects. From the gaze of others, humans can learn about objects in their environment and accordingly they tend to follow the gaze of others automatically. In other situations gaze is used in an attempt to establish an interaction. Here, we investigate by which cues passive observers distinguish between private and social intentions behind the gaze of an observed person. We had participants observe an agent performing gaze shifts while gradually manipulating different aspects of these gaze shifts and asked the participants for their interpretation of the gaze behavior as being socially vs privately motivated (Fig.).

Jording 2019

Figure. Course of one trial of Study 1 (A) and Study 2 (B). The stack of images for initial position and shift position indicate that in each trial, one out of four possible images was displayed.


The attribution of privately motivated behavior was based solely on the end position of the gaze shift. Conversely, the social interpretation of the observed behavior depended additionally upon initial eye contact. Findings help us to understand the role and interplay of eye contact and the amplitude of gaze shifts for the attribution of private vs. social intentions. The results thus grant an insight into the mechanisms and underpinnings of social gaze and its’ part in social cognition and the establishment of social interactions.



Jording, M., Engemann, D., Eckert, H., Bente, G., & Vogeley, K. (2019). Distinguishing social from private intentions through the passive observation of gaze cues. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 442.

Correspondence to:

Mathis Jording