Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
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Thesis defense Anne Böckler (Donders Series 115)

February 4th, 2013

Promotor: Prof. Günther Knoblich, copromotor: dr. Nathalie Sebanz

Looking at the world together. How others’ attentional relations to jointly attended scenes shape cognitive processing

Joint attention happens where- and whenever people encounter people. Our sensitivity to each other’s eyes and gaze as well our motivation to initiate attentional relations with others help establish instances in which we jointly attend to the world. Joint attention, in turn, fosters the development of social skills and facilitates action coordination and communication. But what are the immediate effects of looking at the world together and how do they contribute to social interaction?
The present thesis addressed influences of joint attention on the processing of and the performance on jointly attended scenes. Specifically, several studies examined how a co-attendee’s perceptual and attentional relations towards attended objects or towards other attendees shape participants’ perception, attention, cognition, and performance.
In a first set of studies, we found that when people look at a scene from different spatial perspectives (i.e., sitting opposite each other), they unconsciously take each other's views into account and this influences the way they perceive and process the scene themselves. A second set of studies investigated the effect of looking at the same object together (from the same perspective), but focusing attention on different aspects of the object (i.e., the overall shape versus more detailed patterns within the object). We found that people represent the attentional focus of the other and this shapes the way they focus attention on and recognize the object themselves. Finally, we addressed how people process and respond to eye contact that is not directed at them, but is merely observed between others. We found that observing such an attentional relation between others enhances the tendency to follow their gazes subsequently.
To sum up, our findings present first evidence that joint attention, by highlighting the interaction partner’s relations to attended objects or agents, affects how co-attendees perceive, attend to, process, and act on jointly attended scenes. When we look at the world with others, their attentional relations to the jointly attended environment and to each other shape how we cognitively process the environment ourselves. In this way, joint attention allows establishing a common ground between us from which the enterprise of social interaction can lift off.