Eye gaze is a powerful cue that indicates where another person's attention is directed in the environment. Seeing another person's eye gaze shift spontaneously and reflexively elicits a shift of one's own attention to the same region in space. Here, we investigated whether reallocation of attention in the direction of eye gaze is modulated by personal familiarity with faces. On the one hand, the eye gaze of a close friend should be more effective in redirecting our attention as compared to the eye gaze of a stranger. On the other hand, the social relevance of a familiar face might itself hold attention and, thereby, slow lateral shifts of attention. To distinguish between these possibilities, we measured the efficacy of the eye gaze of personally familiar and unfamiliar faces as directional attention cues using adapted versions of the Posner paradigm with saccadic and manual responses. We found that attention shifts were slower when elicited by a perceived change in the eye gaze of a familiar individual as compared to attention shifts elicited by unfamiliar faces at short latencies (100 ms). We also measured simple detection of change in direction of gaze in personally familiar and unfamiliar faces to test whether slower attention shifts were due to slower detection. Participants detected changes in eye gaze faster for familiar faces than for unfamiliar faces. Our results suggest that personally familiar faces briefly hold attention due to their social relevance, thereby slowing shifts of attention, even though the direction of eye movements are detected faster in familiar faces.
Keywords: cue salience; eye gaze; face processing; gaze cueing; personal familiarity; slowed disengagement of attention; social cues.