Determining what someone else is looking at -- and whether he or she is looking at you -- is one of humankind's most distinctive feats of mental agility. Even a baby human can wrest more information about another person's intentions by looking at the direction of his gaze than an adult chimpanzee ever will. Our canine friends are better at it than wolves, but still no better at this skill than an infant.
So, when you're pretty sure someone is gazing at you -- not just in your direction, but directly at you -- you must be right. Right?
Wrong, says a new study, which suggests that in circumstances of high uncertainty -- at night, or when the other person is wearing sunglasses, for instance -- we favor the assumption that the person is looking directly at us, even when he is not.
In the latest study, published this week in the journal Current Biology, researchers used graphic computer programs to develop pictures of faces, and asked subjects to decide whether the generated face was looking at them or not. While some gazed straight-on at the subjects, the researchers introduced ambiguity into the picture by shifting the orientation of the face and eyes, and by blurring or shifting the pupils' position in the eyes by tiny degrees.