UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The effect of socially communicative eye contact on memory Lanthier, Sophie N.


Just by looking at someone’s eyes, we can quickly infer how they feel, what interests them, and whether we’ve met them. Because of their value as a socially communicative cue, researchers have strived to understand how the gaze of other people influences a variety of cognitive processes. However, recent work in the field of social attention suggests that socially communicative aspects of eye gaze are not tested effectively in laboratory studies that use images of people. As attention affects many other cognitive processes, it is likely that social attention between real individuals could also affect other cognitive processes, such as memory. From previous work alone, it is unclear whether, and if so how, socially communicative eye gaze affects memory. The studies presented in this document address this issue. The first two chapters establish that socially communicative eye contact can improve verbal memory, though only in females. Chapter 3 confirms that socially communicative aspects, rather than perceptual aspects, of eye gaze drive improvements in memory. The next three chapters explored which communicative signals are responsible for the memory benefits observed in female participants. Chapter 4 eliminates the possibility that observing a head-lift is responsible for the memory effects, and confirms that eye contact is the key factor. Chapter 4 also reveals that 'social exclusion' (i.e., not being looked at) can hinder memory. Chapters 5 and 6 determine that other socially communicative signals, both non-verbal and verbal, can also modulate verbal memory. This demonstrates that a communicative signal in general, rather than one specific to the eyes, is modulating memory performance. However, Chapter 6 demonstrates that a non-gaze referential cue can influence memory in male participants; which stands in contrast to the original finding that eye contact did not. Thus, males appear to process eye gaze differently from other social cues. Collectively, the results of this thesis reveal the importance of using social cues that are communicative in nature (e.g., real people) when studying human memory. While the mechanisms through which different communicative signals affect memory are, at least partially shared, their effects appear to vary with the gender of the observer.

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