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Study Looks At Eye Gaze During Potentially Offensive Behavior

By , black-rose-bielefeld.de GuideMarch 6, 2008

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Imagine this: You're at a social event with friends or co-workers, when someone suddenly spouts off a potentially offensive comment. An uncomfortable silence settles over the room for the briefest of seconds while all eyes turn to glance at the person most likely to be offended by the remark. Not only has this person just been insulted, he or she has now become subject of some unwelcome attention.

A new study in the March issue of Psychological Science, explores these eye gazes. Researchers at Agnes Scott College, Stanford University and the University of Reading devised a situation to investigate eye gazes in potentially embarrassing and awkward social situations.

In the study, participants watched videotaped discussions in which four males (three white and one black) discussed university admissions issues. The researchers also utilized two conditions: One in which an off-screen narrator informs the participants viewing the video that only two of the white discussants could hear the conversation, and another in which all four men could hear what was said. During the videotaped discussion, one of the white discussants made a potentially offensive remark about affirmative action.

The results of the study indicated that participants looked at the black discussant four times longer when they believed that he had heard the offensive comment.

The authors of the study suggest that "these results reveal that participants simultaneously attend to what is said, who can hear what is said, the social identity of the listeners, and the possible reactions of the listeners, corroborating recent findings that eye movements are influenced by a range of subtle linguistic and interpersonal factors."

According to the researchers, one possible explanation for this behavior is that members of the majority group may look to members of minority groups to help assess the situation. While the exact reasons for this eye gaze behavior remain unclear, the authors suggest that this research "is rich with possibilities and can help illuminate how people go about answering the thorny question of what is appropriate and what is offensive.”


Crosby, J.R., Monin, B, & Richardson, D. (2008) Where do we look during potentially offensive behavior? Psychological Science, 19(3), 226-229.

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March 9, 2008 at 1:48 am
(1) heather says:

wow that sure is a whole lot of psychobabble for something that is so simple. Of course everyone is going to look at the insulted person?they want to know what that person is going to do about the insult?how they will react. duh people with big degrees had to study this?

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