What can our eye movements tell us about a person? Can we know what somebody is thinking by analyzing the patterns of what they tend to look at? Or can we deduce something about them?
Eye contact and body language are considered, discussed, and even taught to us. For example, we know that we should look people in the eye when addressing them in certain context, while in other context it may be wise to avoid it. We are told this outright as children, and as we grow up. We are trained to make good impressions with our eyes and gaze. We are also taught in more subtle ways, through our experience around other people, what is ok to look at and how much sustained eye contact is appropriate for a situation.
This is taught through direct language and experience. But even the most subtle uses of the gaze, which can define what we perceive, can reflect affordances of language and culture. It is a common understanding in psycholinguistics that language can provide affordances, for example the tendency to assign gender to objects in german and russian, and spanish among others. Another famous example is the distinction between egocentric and geocentric coordinates creating completely different perceptions of space. Whereas the first, most familiar to the west, places the person as the center of the space, the ladder, rarer view, situates the individual within the world, always aware of the geographic directions north, south, east, west. The ladder is prevalent in cultures who’s languages do not include egocentric directionality such as right (or “to your right”).
If languages provide certain affordances in thought, eye contact and use of gaze culture may also have implications in the way that we perceive the world and interact with each other.
Coincidentally, the first eye tracking study I read about was a pscyholinguistic study that looked at children’s gazes as they read in correlation with reading comprehension. The amount of time spent on words and certain parts of sentences were compared to comprehension and intended meaning.
I then read about studies that found significantly different patterns of eye movements among autistic patients, and compared them to the gaze patterns of “normal” people. People on the autistic spectrum spent significantly less time focused on facial features that convey expression, were less likely to look at the eyes, more likely to look at the mouth, and were less likely to recognize facial expressions like anger and sadness. This correlated to the knowledge that they often do not feel socially comfortable, even though other tests to that point had failed to find consistent deviations or patterns. This became the first affective way to research autistic and spectrum people’s ability to recognize social quest that come from eye contact and expression, and to predict the likelihood that a child will have other autistic/spectrum behaviors as they grow up.
Other studies have compared the difference between east Asian people and westerners. As an aside, I spent the summer in China and was really impressed with how different communication and interpersonal street vibes were there. Even for somebody who travels a lot, it was difficult to read and become accustomed to. So research trying to pinpoint psychological and cultural differences, as limited and often inconclusive as it is, was a big topic of conversation among the xpats I met. And there was a lot of it! Eye tracking and perception studies, however, seem to give a good hint at where to begin, and correlate nicely with political and social realities, as well as pervasive social and psycholinguistic theories.
According to the findings, while westerners focus on eyes and individuals, east Asians focus on other parts of the face, as well as on other parts of the scene, taking in the context and systems. To totally stereotype a few billion people, politically, socially, and religiously, east asians are less egocentric and more focused on congruence within societal and environmental systems. This isn’t my idea, just a meme out there. Working on an awareness campaign in China, I studied advertising strategy and found an abundance of the use of “harmonious society” as a motivator. I would compare this to America’s focus on the successful cool, sexy, or good individual behavior.
I will post the sources and powerpoint soon.