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One look says it all

November 29, 2006 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

Women beat men at the task of being attuned to a familiar face.

Women are more attuned to the subtle non-verbal communication made by the direction of a colleague's gaze, according to new research.

Almost like a reflex, people will follow a person's gaze and look towards what the other person is looking at. This phenomenon, known as 'gaze cuing', is deeply entrenched in human behaviour. "We do it without effort, very quickly, and that's quite amazing," says Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "We do it from the first hours of being born."

Previous work has indicated that women seem to be more adept at this than men. And now research shows that they're even more attuned to the gaze of others when they are familiar faces.

Thirty-two volunteers were shown images of people looking one way or another, followed by a picture of a box on one side or another of the face. Subjects were to press a button to indicate which side the box was on, and researchers measured whether they were faster at doing so when the direction of the gaze and the box was the same rather than different. Some of the faces in the experiment were of colleagues of the subjects, to see whether familiarity with the person doing the gazing would enhance the effect.

A brief flash of a unfamiliar face showed that the direction of gaze only improved the speed of identifying the box's location by about 9 milliseconds for volunteers of both genders. But when the researchers looked specifically at the 17 volunteers who came from within the Duke neurobiology department, they found women's scores improved by 26 milliseconds, and men's by 12. The researchers guess that this is because many of the departmental faces were familiar to the volunteers. And this effect of familiarity seems much stronger with the women, they report in Biology Letters1.

Social creatures

The result implies that the gaze cuing phenomenon is more than a simple, self-contained neural process that gathers information about a gaze and responds to it. Instead there must be some more complex social aspects that train people to be more responsive to known people than strangers, and make women (in this university department, at least) better at it than men.

Platt and his co-authors say that women are generally better at many kinds of social processing, so it is not entirely shocking that women beat their male colleagues at noticing and responding to their colleagues' eyes.

But researchers warn not to jump to the conclusion that women are simply more attuned social creatures than men in all ways. Both sexes probably had evolutionary pressures to be socially savvy, says David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin they were probably just different pressures, with different effects.

"One must delve deeper into the particular social adaptive problems women versus men have evolved to solve," he says. There may be some reason that following gaze is a more useful trick for women than for men.

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  1. Deaner R., et al. Biol. Lett., doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0564 (2006).

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