Gaze sensitivity: function and mechanisms from sensory and cognitive perspectives

Gabrielle L. Davidson, Shannon Butler, Esteban Fernández-Juricic, Alex Thornton, Nicola S. Clayton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Sensitivity to the gaze of other individuals has long been a primary focus in sociocognitive research on humans and other animals. Information about where others are looking may often be of adaptive value in social interactions and predator avoidance, but studies across a range of taxa indicate there are substantial differences in the extent to which animals obtain and use information about other individuals' gaze direction. As the literature expands, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make comparisons across taxa as experiments adopt and adjust different methodologies to account for differences between species in their socioecology, sensory systems and possibly also their underlying cognitive mechanisms. Furthermore, as more species are found to exhibit gaze sensitivity, more terminology arises to describe the behaviours. To clarify the field, we propose a restricted nomenclature that defines gaze sensitivity in terms of observable behaviour, independent of the underlying mechanisms. This is particularly useful in nonhuman animal studies where cognitive interpretations are ambiguous. We then describe how socioecological factors may influence whether species will attend to gaze cues, and suggest links between ultimate factors and proximate mechanisms such as cognition and perception. In particular, we argue that variation in sensory systems, such as retinal specializations and the position of the eyes, will determine whether gaze cues (e.g. head movement) are perceivable during visual fixation. We end by making methodological recommendations on how to apply these variations in socioecology and visual systems to advance the field of gaze research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-15
Number of pages13
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Early online date21 Nov 2013
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014

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