The Stare-in-the-Crowd Effect: How We Notice When Others Look at Us and How This Is Affected By Psychopathology

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. T. Crehan1,2, H. E. Frering1, N. Durand1, C. Pirro1, K. Reeves1 and R. R. Althoff3, (1)Psychology, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, (2)Psychology, University of Alabama, Birmingham, AL, (3)Psychiatry, Psychology, and Pediatrics, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT

Humans are particularly adept at detecting if someone is looking at them in a crowd of other faces. This “stare-in-the-crowd effect” is implicated in numerous moment-to-moment interactions yet relatively little is known about its characteristics. Properly detecting and reacting to gaze informs social interactions; deficits in this perceptual system cause an individual to miss out on large amounts of social information and is a core deficit observed in ASD. A newly validated paradigm was used to study stable gaze detection as well as dynamic (e.g. catching another person staring and getting caught staring) to capture these deficits.


-To determine if different gaze conditions elicit differential eye movements and physiological arousal

-To determine how the stare-in-the-crowd effect presents relative to ASD and related traits


A total of 36 young adults (ages 18-35) completed an eye tracking task, heart rate monitoring, a brief cognitive assessment, and three self-report questionnaires, including the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), the Theory of Mind Inventory (ToMI), and the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS). Four eye tracking outcomes (interest area (IA) dwell time, IA fixation count, and IA second fixation duration, and pupil size) and one heart rate outcome (RMSSD) were analyzed in four eye tracking conditions.


The overall sample included 36 adults (M = 20.53, SD = 2.22; 41.7% female). Of these, 15 were diagnosed with ASD or PDD and 21 were not. There were no significant differences between the two groups by age, sex, or IQ.  Two by four ANOVAs yielded a significant interaction of diagnosis and condition on IA dwell time (F(3,139)=5.67, p<.005); a significant interaction of diagnosis and condition on IA second fixation duration (F(3,139)= 4.77, p<.005);  a non-significant interaction of diagnosis and condition on IA second fixation duration (F(3,139)=2.18, p=.094); and no significant main effects or interaction of diagnosis and condition on pupil size (F(3,139)=1.5, p=.33).

Change scores for IA Dwell time, IA Fixation count, IA Second Fixation Duration, Pupil Size, and RMSSD were calculated relative to stable and dynamic conditions (e.g. How many more IA fixations did a person make in the Catching another staring and getting caught staring conditions versus the Stable Averted and stable Mutual conditions?) and relative to amount of self-directed gaze conditions (e.g. What was the difference in RMSSD between the Stable Averted and Catching another staring conditions versus Stable Mutual and Getting caught staring conditions?). Regressions using the SRS and LSAS to predict psychophysiological outcomes were not significant. Advanced theory of mind as measured on the ToMI significantly predicted IA Fixation Count, IA Dwell Time, and RMSSD. 


The pattern of differences in eye tracking outcomes confirms that individuals with ASD are impacted by the stare-in-the-crowd effect but to a lesser extent than typically-developing individuals. Advanced theory of mind is significantly associated with gaze behavior. Both group comparisons and dimensional analyses highlight targets for intervention.