, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 651-658

Averting the gaze disengages the environment and facilitates remembering


When people are asked moderately difficult questions, they often avert their gazes. We report five experiments in which we documented this phenomenon. They demonstrate that (1) the frequency of gaze aversion is related to the difficulty of cognitive processing, (2) this behavior cannot be due solely to demand characteristics or embarrassment, and (3) the behavior is functional: Averting the gaze improves performance. We speculate that averting the gaze helps people to disengage from environmental stimulation and thereby enhances the efficiency of cognitive processing directed by nonenvironmental stimulation.

This work was supported in part by AFOSR AASERT Grant F49620-92-J-0310 and University of Wisconsin Graduate Research Committee Grant 940109. The data were presented at the meeting of the Psychonomic Society in 1995, and they serve as part of the second author’s senior honor’s thesis. We thank Jennifer Jansen for her help in collecting the data for Experiment 4, and Dacher Keltner for the use of his equipment and laboratory space for Experiment 3.