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October 4, 2012
What do we do with our eyes when we talk to each other? People's gaze behaviour is highly organised, Federico Rossano discovered during his dissertation research. He investigated how participants (Italians from Emilia-Romagna, a region in Northern Italy) use their eyes at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of utterances. What we say seems to affect participants' gaze behaviour more than who we are or what our relationship is.
Not just for turn-taking
"During a conversation, gaze behaviour is not simply driven by perceptual needs, like making sure we can grab a cup properly, nor simply driven by the gender or power relationship between the participants," Rossano explains. "Gaze behaviour is affected by, and affects, what people are doing to each other with their talk."
People don't use gaze just to coordinate who speaks next and to signal when they have finished speaking (turn-taking), as previous research claims. According to Rossano, gaze behaviour is related to the specific accomplishment of courses of action. "For instance, most gaze shifts will occur at the beginning of a question or after the completion of an answer, not at the beginning or end of each turn."
Enforcing responses by looking at people
When people are listening to a story their gaze behaviour is different from listening to a question. "At the beginning of a story, the listener is expected to look at the speaker as soon as possible and to keep looking until the story is finished to demonstrate full engagement to the story . During questions this is not the case. My research also shows that people can use their eyes to enforce a response from recipients by simply looking at them. Then they usually get a response right away."
Michael Phelps at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Close to participating in the Olympics
As a child, Rossano wanted to compete in the Olympic games as a swimmer, he says in his thesis' acknowledgements. "In my eyes as a young child, being amongst the top swimmers in the world was like the maximum realization for a human being. (...) It took me many years of hard training and poor performances in the pool to realise that I was not talented enough to make it to the Olympics."
But the desire remained, he admits. Luckily, his current work as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig is quite an acceptable alternative. "Becoming a researcher at a Max Planck Institute is, to my eyes, the closest thing to participating in the Olympics that I will ever experience..."