Engaging in gaze contest is a reflex

Sunday, February 27, 2011

LONDON - If you accidentally knock over your neighbours beer in a bar and he stares at you, would you buy him a new drink or would you try to outstare him? New research suggests the dominance behaviour exhibited by staring someone down can be reflexive.

Our primate relatives certainly get into dominance battles, they mostly resolve the dominance hierarchy not through fighting, but through staring contests, the journal Psychological Science reports.

David Terburg, Nicole Hooiveld, Henk Aarts, J. Leon Kenemans and Jack van Honk of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands wanted to examine whether staring for dominance is automatic for humans.

Participants watched a computer screen while a series of coloured ovals appeared. Below each oval were blue, green, and red dots. They were supposed to look away from the oval to the dot with the same colour, according to an Utrecht University statement.

What they didnt know was that for a split-second before the coloured oval appeared, a face of the same colour appeared, with either an angry, happy or neutral expression.

So the researchers were testing how long it took for people to look away from faces with different emotions.

People who tended to be dominant were slower to look away from angry faces, while people who were motivated to seek rewards gazed at the happy faces longer.

In other words, the assumptions were correct for people who are dominant, engaging in gaze contests is a reflex. “When people are dominant, they are dominant in a snap of a second,” says Terburg.

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