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J Exp Child Psychol. 2012 Feb;111(2):299-318. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2011.08.009. Epub 2011 Oct 6.

Gradual improvement in fine-grained sensitivity to triadic gaze after 6 years of age.

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Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4L8.


The current research compared the ability of adults and children to determine where another person is looking in shared visual space (triadic gaze). In Experiment 1, children (6-, 8-, 10-, and 14-year-olds) and adults viewed photographs of a model fixating a series of positions separated by 1.6° along the horizontal plane. The task was to indicate whether the model was looking to the left or right of one of three target positions (midline, 6.4° left, or 6.4° right). By 6 years of age, thresholds were quite small (M=1.94°) but were roughly twice as large as those of adults (M=1.05°). Thresholds decreased to adult-like levels around 10 years of age. All age groups showed the same pattern of higher sensitivity for central targets than peripheral targets and of misjudging gaze toward peripheral targets as farther from midline than it really was. In subsequent experiments, we evaluated possible reasons for the higher thresholds in 6- and 8-year-olds. In Experiment 2, the thresholds of 6-year-olds did not improve when the range of deviations from the target position that the model fixated covered a much wider range. In Experiment 3, 8-year-olds were less sensitive than adults to small shifts in eye position even though the task required only matching faces with the same eye position and not determining where the person was looking. These findings suggest that by 6 years of age, children are quite sensitive to triadic gaze, which may support inferences about others' interests and intentions. Subsequent improvements in sensitivity involve, at least in part, an increase in sensitivity to eye position.

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