While not exact, this image closely mirrors the experiment.

Swimsuit Challenge

A series of simple experiments tested the eye gaze behavior of Other Guys under various conditions of surveillance.

Procedure Participants were brought to the testing room and sat in front of a computer. In the no eye tracker condition participants were then instructed about how to perform the computer task (a 6-min cueing experiment). In the eye tracker condition, participants were fit with the eye tracker and a brief calibration (less than a minute) was conducted prior to being instructed about how to perform the computer task. The eye tracker manipulation was between subjects . . . The participant performed the computer task alone.

Imagine that the picture depicts an experimenter explaining the computer task to an Other Guy, here randomized to the no eye tracker condition. You also do not see something else in this picture.

The pinhole camera was embedded in the swimsuit calendar (the provocative stimulus) located 90° to the participant’s right (relative to when they were facing the computer).

Yeah, that swimsuit calendar at a right viewing angle to the Other Guy (both males and females in these experiments). And we know that the eye tracker is fake. Other Guys wearing an eye tracker believe that the experimenter can track their gaze all the time. Especially if they turn their heads to the right where that hidden pinhole camera in the calendar will record their gaze. So, when you think Uncle Norm is watching with his eye tracker do you behave differently than when you aren’t wearing an eye tracker?

In the no eye tracker condition, 92% of the participants looked at the provocative stimulus while only 36% of the participants wearing an eye tracker did the same (see Fig. 1). This difference was statistically significant, X2 = 7.74, p < .05 . . .

That’s nearly a 60 point difference, a Large Windowpane difference, about 20/80. Men and women looked at the swimsuit calendar when Uncle Norm wasn’t watching. But, maybe it’s the physical presence of the eye tracker that is inhibiting head movement and not Uncle Norm. So, the experimenters add a third condition.

In Experiment 2, we repeated the conditions of Experiment 1, but added a third condition in which participants wore the eye tracker but were instructed that it was turned off (non-operational eye tracker condition).

Count that change.

Swimsuit Experiment 2 Graph

In this case, the Pretty Picture also counts the change. You see that when Other Guys thought the eye tracker was turned off, they looked at the calendar at the same rate as Other Guys not wearing the device. It’s Uncle Norm driving the eye behavior. You see the large difference (25% versus 83%) between Other Guys told the eye tracker was on versus off, almost a 70 point difference, a Large Windowpane of 15/85.

The researchers also run a third experiment that includes a benign calendar (once a snowboarder calendar, once a natural landscape calendar). Guess what? Regardless of eye tracker condition, both groups of Other Guys look at the calendar at roughly the same rate. So, we can rule out a curiosity factor.

The researchers conclude.

The reported experiments demonstrate clearly that an implied social presence, in this case an eye tracker, can influence looking behavior. Individuals wearing an eye tracker alter their natural looking behavior in a manner consistent with a form of impression management. Specifically, in Experiments 1 and 2, participants wearing an eye tracker were much less likely to look at a provocative stimulus than individuals not wearing an eye tracker . . . Rather, it appears that it is the knowledge that one’s eyes are being watched that alters looking behavior.

And that last observation is the persuasion news in this experiment. Sure, it’s fun to demonstrate that when Other Guys think that they are being watched, they follow the public rules of a polite Uncle Norm. But, realize that Other Guys are controlling their gaze because their eyes disclose more than they wish Uncle Norm to know. Consider two implications of this, first with research, second with practical persuasion. Consider this interesting contradiction in the research literature.

Much of our life is spent thinking about other people, both during our waking hours and when we dream. Research on human attention seems to support this strong interest in people. Numerous studies have indicated that when individuals are presented with photos or videos containing people, they show a profound tendency to look at people rather than other objects (Fletcher-Watson, Findlay, Leekam, & Benson, 2008; Yarbus, 1967). This focus on people—and especially their eyes (e.g., see Birmingham & Kingstone, 2009, and Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007, for recent reviews)—appears to include a deep interest in what others might be interested in (e.g., what they are attending to). The prevailing explanation for these findings is that people’s eyes provide an unusually rich source of information, revealing their mental and emotional state as well as exposing where and to what their attention is committed in their environment (e.g., Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, & Jolliffe, 1997; Emery, 2000).


Against this background of laboratory research, it was remarkable to discover that when an image of a person is replaced with a real person, a profoundly different pattern of looking behavior emerges. Two studies are particularly instructive on this point. Laidlaw, Foulsham, Kuhn, and Kingstone (2011) demonstrated that when people were in a room with a stranger sitting in a chair across from them, they were disinclined to look at that person. Indeed, they were more likely to look at the chair if it was empty than if it contained a person. However, when a video of that stranger sitting in a chair was presented on a computer screen, participants were biased to look at the person’s image, a result consistent with previous laboratory studies. Gallup, Chong, and Couzin (2012) extended the Laidlaw study, demonstrating that individuals were also disinclined to look where other real people were looking. Gallup, Chong, and Couzin (2012) placed an object in a busy hallway and monitored individuals’ gaze behavior with respect to that object. When face-to-face with an individual who looked at the object, people were actually less likely to look at it than if no one had looked at the object at all (see also Gallup, Hale, et al., 2012).

Research finds conflicting results between lab setting with images of people compared to field studies that put people in living proximity of one another. Lab studies strongly show that we will close observe Other Guys when we think no one can see us see them. But, when we think Other Guys can observe our eyes, we look away. Our eye gaze both captures information about others, but also reveals information about ourselves. More research needed!

Now, the practical persuasion. If you are panthering face-to-face, you already implicitly know this distinction. Sure, you look at others to gain information about them, but in so doing, you reveal information about yourself: Where do you look, how long? Staring is not only impolite, it reveals potential persuasion you’d prefer to hide in plain sight.

Children of the Night must learn to look without being seen.

Evan F. Risko, Daniel C. Richardson, and Alan Kingstone. (2016). Breaking the Fourth Wall of Cognitive Science: Real-World Social Attention and the Dual Function of Gaze. Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2016 25: 70-74.

DOI: 10.1177/0963721415617806

Risko E. F., and Kingstone A. (2011). Eyes wide shut: Implied social presence, eye tracking and attention. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 73, 291–296.

DOI: 10.3758/s13414-010-0042-1


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