Evidence for the adaptive parsing of non-communicative eye movements during joint attention interactions

PeerJ. 2023 Nov 21:11:e16363. doi: 10.7717/peerj.16363. eCollection 2023.


During social interactions, the ability to detect and respond to gaze-based joint attention bids often involves the evaluation of non-communicative eye movements. However, very little is known about how much humans are able to track and parse spatial information from these non-communicative eye movements over time, and the extent to which this influences joint attention outcomes. This was investigated in the current study using an interactive computer-based joint attention game. Using a fully within-subjects design, we specifically examined whether participants were quicker to respond to communicative joint attention bids that followed predictive, as opposed to random or no, non-communicative gaze behaviour. Our results suggest that in complex, dynamic tasks, people adaptively use and dismiss non-communicative gaze information depending on whether it informs the locus of an upcoming joint attention bid. We also went further to examine the extent to which this ability to track dynamic spatial information was specific to processing gaze information. This was achieved by comparing performance to a closely matched non-social task where eye gaze cues were replaced with dynamic arrow stimuli. Whilst we found that people are also able to track and use dynamic non-social information from arrows, there was clear evidence for a relative advantage for tracking gaze cues during social interactions. The implications of these findings for social neuroscience and autism research are discussed.

Keywords: Attention; Eye-tracking; Joint attention; Non-verbal communication; Ostensive signals; Relevance Theory; Social communication signal.

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Autistic Disorder*
  • Communication
  • Eye Movements*
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans

Grants and funding

This research was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship. Dr Nathan Caruana was supported by a Macquarie University Research Fellowship (MQRF). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.