Attention to eye contact in the West and East: Autonomic responses and evaluative ratings
Akechi, Hironori; Senju, Atsushi; Uibo, Helen; Kikuchi, Yukiko; Hasegawa, Toshikazu; Hietanen, Jari (2013)
Plos ONE 8 3
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Eye contact has a fundamental role in human social interaction. The special appearance of the human eye (i.e., white sclera contrasted with a coloured iris) implies the importance of detecting another person's face through eye contact. Empirical studies have demonstrated that faces making eye contact are detected quickly and processed preferentially (i.e., the eye contact effect). Such sensitivity to eye contact seems to be innate and universal among humans; however, several studies suggest that cultural norms affect eye contact behaviours. For example, Japanese individuals exhibit less eye contact than do individuals from Western European or North American cultures. However, how culture modulates eye contact behaviour is unclear. The present study investigated cultural differences in autonomic correlates of attentional orienting (i.e., heart rate) and looking time. Additionally, we examined evaluative ratings of eye contact with another real person, displaying an emotionally neutral expression, between participants from Western European (Finnish) and East Asian (Japanese) cultures. Our results showed that eye contact elicited stronger heart rate deceleration responses (i.e., attentional orienting), shorter looking times, and higher ratings of subjective feelings of arousal as compared to averted gaze in both cultures. Instead, cultural differences in the eye contact effect were observed in various evaluative responses regarding the stimulus faces (e.g., facial emotion, approachability etc.). The rating results suggest that individuals from an East Asian culture perceive another's face as being angrier, unapproachable, and unpleasant when making eye contact as compared to individuals from a Western European culture. The rating results also revealed that gaze direction (direct vs. averted) could influence perceptions about another person's facial affect and disposition. These results suggest that cultural differences in eye contact behaviour emerge from differential display rules and cultural norms, as opposed to culture affecting eye contact behaviour directly at the physiological level.
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