See An Accident? Watch Others Follow Your Stare

Admit it.  When you see someone stumble and fall, you can't help looking.  People seeing you looking will look, too.

It's called "gaze following," and although it's been demonstrated in dozens of species, researchers have theorized that it may develop in a unique way in humans, because it plays a critical role in learning and socialization.

Researchers, who have studied this in monkeys, believe it has deep evolutionary roots, according to newswise.com.

"Even though it seems like it's a very simple thing, this is a foundational social and cognitive skill that humans have. And there has been little research on how this skill develops in other species," says Alexandra Rosati, Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology and the first author of the study. 

 "This is the largest study ever looking at gaze-following in monkeys. We followed how this skill developed through their whole lifespan and examined the psychological mechanisms they were using to exhibit this behavior."

By studying more than 480 monkeys ranging from two weeks to 28 years old, Rosati and colleagues from Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania found that gaze following in macaques first appears a few months after birth, peaks among juveniles and then slowly declines into old age. The study also revealed - just as in humans - that female monkeys were more sensitive to gaze cues than males.

"We would approach a monkey when it was sitting calmly and try to attract their attention" she says. "As soon as the monkey looked at the experimenter, the experimenter would just look straight up. A second person would be filming the monkey, so we could see if the monkey also looked up."

"Compared to other primates, humans have a much longer juvenile period, we have a very long life span, and there are characteristics of human aging - like menopause - that are not shared with other primates," Rosati says. "These monkeys are quite dissimilar from us in a lot of these life history characteristics, and we thought this is a great test of whether those human life history characteristics are tightly intertwined with this cognitive development pattern. If we could show that the monkeys' social cognitive trajectory is very similar to ours, that lets us make inferences about what is driving this pattern in our species."

So why care?

Ultimately, Rosati explains, the study reveals that gaze following - while not unique to humans - likely serves as the foundation for a host of more advanced social skills humans rely on.

"This is a critical skill for humans - it's important for the theory for mind, communication, it's how you learn about the culture you're growing up in," Rosati says. "And the fact that gaze following can be disrupted in individuals with autism suggests that early disruptions in how you respond to social cues can develop into a much more pervasive problem. The fact that monkeys show this sensitivity...suggests that humans are building upon this biologically-shared propensity to respond to these cues. It's not just something different in our species alone."






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