The eyes do not have it after all? Attention is not automatically biased towards faces and eyes

  • Effie J. PereiraEmail author
  • Elina Birmingham
  • Jelena Ristic
Original Article


It is commonly accepted that attention is spontaneously biased towards faces and eyes. However, the role of stimulus features and task settings in this finding has not yet been systematically investigated. Here, we tested if faces and facial features bias attention spontaneously when stimulus factors, task properties, response conditions, and eye movements are controlled. In three experiments, participants viewed face, house, and control scrambled face–house images in an upright and inverted orientation. The task was to discriminate a target that appeared with equal probability at the previous location of the face, house, or the control image. In all experiments, our data indicated no spontaneous biasing of attention for targets occurring at the previous location of the face. Experiment 3, which measured oculomotor biasing, suggested a reliable but infrequent saccadic bias towards the eye region of upright faces. Importantly, these results did not reflect our specific laboratory settings, as in Experiment 4, we present a full replication of a classic finding in the literature demonstrating reliable social attention bias. Together, these data suggest that attentional biasing for social information is task and context mediated, and less robust than originally thought.



Many thanks to J. Michelin and E. Bossard for their help with this project. The data sets from the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


This study was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and NSERC-CREATE graduate fellowships to EJP, NSERC, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants to EB and JR, and W. Dawson award to JR.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in these studies involved human participants and were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee, and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Faculty of EducationSimon Fraser UniversityBurnabyCanada

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