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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Examining the deployment of overt and covert attention to social stimuli in naturalistic and laboratory environments Laidlaw, Kaitlin Elizabeth Wiggins


The study of social attention has in large part been constrained to studying how individuals look to images or videos of other people within highly controlled and isolated laboratory environments. The belief is that measuring responses to non-interactive images or videos of people can serve to inform and predict everyday social attentional behaviours. However, this implicit assumption has gone relatively untested. In order to better characterize how and why people pay attention to others, the present thesis explores the proposition that social attentional processes are generalizable across levels of realism and scale. In so doing, this thesis describes social attentional deployment based on whether it is oriented overtly (shifting attention with the eyes) or covertly (shifting attention without an eye movement), within both naturalistic and laboratory environments. Chapters 2 and 3 explore whether and how social attention is directed to nearby others within naturalistic environments, and identifies major departures from conclusions that were generated using computer-based laboratory tasks. In particular, the results of the first two chapters suggest a weakened role for overt orienting and a strong reliance on covert mechanisms. Chapter 4 confirms that a covert bias to social stimuli can also be observed within the lab. Chapter 5 moves away from initial selection of social stimuli within the environment to explore how attention is deployed to facial features once a person is already attended to, and demonstrates a non-volitional drive to overtly orient attention to the eyes. Finally, Chapter 6 asks whether overt and covert attentional selection of socially-relevant facial features have different behavioural effects, and reveals an important functional benefit of orienting attention overtly rather than covertly during face encoding for later recognition. Collectively, the results of this thesis support a generalized importance of attending to social stimuli and also extend upon previous work to demonstrate that the deployment of social attention is modulated by the level of selection required, as well as degree of interaction afforded by the situation.

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