Automatic Mechanisms for Social Attention Are Culturally Penetrable

Adam S. Cohen, Joni Y. Sasaki, Tamsin C. German, Heejung S. Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Are mechanisms for social attention influenced by culture? Evidence that social attention is triggered automatically by bottom-up gaze cues and is uninfluenced by top-down verbal instructions may suggest it operates in the same way everywhere. Yet considerations from evolutionary and cultural psychology suggest that specific aspects of one's cultural background may have consequence for the way mechanisms for social attention develop and operate. In more interdependent cultures, the scope of social attention may be broader, focusing on more individuals and relations between those individuals. We administered a multi-gaze cueing task requiring participants to fixate a foreground face flanked by background faces and measured shifts in attention using eye tracking. For European Americans, gaze cueing did not depend on the direction of background gaze cues, suggesting foreground gaze alone drives automatic attention shifting; for East Asians, cueing patterns differed depending on whether the foreground cue matched or mismatched background cues, suggesting foreground and background gaze information were integrated. These results demonstrate that cultural background influences the social attention system by shifting it into a narrow or broad mode of operation and, importantly, provides evidence challenging the assumption that mechanisms underlying automatic social attention are necessarily rigid and impenetrable to culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)242-258
Number of pages17
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2015 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.


  • Automaticity
  • Calibration
  • Cognitive penetrability
  • Culture
  • Evolution
  • Eye tracking
  • Gaze cueing
  • Social attention


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