Alan Kingstone


Relevant Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Nov 2020)
Examining the effects of real and implied social presence (2020)

There is compelling evidence that the physical presence of others influences the decisions and behaviour of individuals. Recently in social presence research, the focus has turned to the influence of implied social presence, i.e., the knowledge or belief that one's behaviour is being (or could be) watched by another. The aim of this thesis is to establish how real and implied presence are similar or different from each other, and to investigate potential mechanisms that can account for the observed effects, such as self-awareness, cognitive load, and proximity. In chapter 1 I briefly review research on social presence, both real and implied, and discuss recent work which directly investigates the influence of social presence on gaze behavior and the implications of this work for understanding social attention. I then investigate the current gaps in social presence research, and assess how implied and real presence effects are similar or different from each other. Chapter 2 lays out what is understood thus far as implied social presence effects, investigating the time course of the effect and the role of self-awareness. In Chapter 3, I capture systematic patterns of social presence effects by use of a common metric of visual attention, and apply this method throughout all subsequent chapters as well as honing the paradigm to capture the effects of social presence in question. Chapter 4 uses this paradigm to examine the effects of cognitive load and physical proximity, on implied and real social presence. Changes in cognitive load reveal a quantitative difference between implied and real presence, and manipulations in proximity reveal a qualitative difference. Chapter 5 extends the consideration of social presence to purchasing behaviours. This examination reveals that social presence effects vary for looking behaviours and purchasing decisions, and that the former is a poor predictor of the latter. Throughout these seven studies, a total of 502 participants were recruited and tested. In Chapter 6 I discuss the results, outline their implications, limitations, and identify future studies that would advance further our understanding of social presence.

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Live social influences on human spatial attention and action (2020)

One of the major goals of behavioural research is to understand how people attend to and interact with objects. In this thesis, I was interested in placing these interactions in an embedded, interactionist framework. That is, I aimed to study them as they often occur in the real world – as part of naturalistic real-time social encounters. The focus of this thesis was on triadic social interactions involving two individuals (an actor and an observer) and one acted-on object. Within this system, I evaluated attention, spatial coding, gaze, and action towards objects that are located in the near space of an observer. I asked: how do social effects across these behaviours relate to one another? Can a guiding principle be identified that predicts when a behaviour should be socially modified?Across several studies, I find that willingness to look at meaningless content and willingness to reach for real objects are both reduced in the space near real others. But, covert attention, spatial coding of objects, and willingness to look at meaningful content did not change. To reconcile the potential conflict between these findings, I made a novel prediction: that willingness to attend and willingness to signal that one is attending can be and are dissociated in naturalistic social situations. This was directly tested using a task where the to-be-attended target is a person who can or cannot see the subjects’ gaze. The prediction was supported; participants selectively modify their visible gaze but not their concealed attentional state when their eyes can be seen. This thesis argues that when objects are located near live others, behaviour is modified to the extent that it has the potential to communicate. So, reaching and looking are modified in the near space of others not as a result of internal shifts in attention but as a process that regulates the social signals that we are willing to send to others.

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Measurement of mind wandering in natural and unnatural settings (2020)

Mind wandering (MW) is defined as a lapse of attention where one’s thoughts are focused inward, thus drawing attention away from the current task. MW has been reported to occur regularly in tasks ranging from simple visual search-paradigms to real-time driving. MW research has been measured most often within lab settings, however an understanding of how MW occurs in more naturalistic everyday tasks is highly valuable as well. This dissertation was motivated by research on the naturalness of experimental design (Tunnell, 1977) and the practice of cognitive ethology, which aims to understand cognition and behaviour under real-world settings (Kingstone, Smilek, & Eastwood, 2008; Kingstone, Smilek, Ristic, Kelland Friesen, & Eastwood, 2003). The goal was to investigate whether the methods, measurements, and settings used to study mind wandering reflect the natural experience as it occurs inside and outside of the lab. In Experiments 1-5, I examine whether MW report style (self-caught versus probe-caught) influences reports made in terms of frequency or content characteristics. Experiments 6-8 extended this investigation to more naturalistic settings. Experiments 9 and 10 consider the role of distraction in MW, within lab and uncontrolled settings. Results from this body of work reveals that MW is relatively stable regardless of whether it is revealed through probe-caught or self-caught methodologies, that peer presence but not lecture features influence MW rates, and that other forms of inattention (i.e., distraction) do not necessarily occur at the same rate as MW. The findings of this thesis open new avenues and methods for the investigation of MW in controlled and natural settings.

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Situated cognition: a lens for exploring behaviour change across contexts (2020)

As theories of situated cognition have been increasingly borne out in the literature, our current understanding of cognition is that it is dynamic and intimately tied to the situational context of the immediate environment. For instance, in the laboratory, participants have a tendency to attend to the location where a cartoon face is looking (Friesen & Kingstone, 1998; Friesen, Moore, & Kingstone, 2005), but very few individuals engage in that same looking behaviour when walking past a stranger in real life (Gallup et al., 2012a). Despite general agreement with the notion that changes in context often invoke changes to cognition and behaviour, decades of research in experimental psychology have been predicated on the assumption that cognition is supported by processes that remain stable across situations (Kingstone, Smilek, & Eastwood, 2008). In the current work, I take the position that when experiments are planned in a way that considers the embedded and situational nature of cognition and behaviour, one can move towards a richer and more thorough understanding of complex real world contexts. Indeed, the situated cognition framework as well as the related ‘nudge theory’ (i.e., the notion that behaviour can be dramatically influenced by subtle changes in context; Sunstein & Thaler, 2008), form the bedrock of my doctoral work. In Chapter 2, I illustrate how a situated approach to cognitive research results in a simple intervention that has important implications for waste management and environmental policy. In Chapter 3, I establish that subtle variations in context can modify the extent to which pro-social behaviours are displayed. In Chapters 4 and 5, I demonstrate that the presence of mobile phones (i.e., technology as situated cognition) is not always a neutral factor when it comes to performance on cognitive tasks. Across these four data chapters and seven empirical investigations, I demonstrate how consideration of the situated cognition framework carries important methodological implications and has the power to uncover cognitive and behavoural effects that may have otherwise been missed.

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The effect of socially communicative eye contact on memory (2019)

Just by looking at someone’s eyes, we can quickly infer how they feel, what interests them, and whether we’ve met them. Because of their value as a socially communicative cue, researchers have strived to understand how the gaze of other people influences a variety of cognitive processes. However, recent work in the field of social attention suggests that socially communicative aspects of eye gaze are not tested effectively in laboratory studies that use images of people. As attention affects many other cognitive processes, it is likely that social attention between real individuals could also affect other cognitive processes, such as memory. From previous work alone, it is unclear whether, and if so how, socially communicative eye gaze affects memory. The studies presented in this document address this issue. The first two chapters establish that socially communicative eye contact can improve verbal memory, though only in females. Chapter 3 confirms that socially communicative aspects, rather than perceptual aspects, of eye gaze drive improvements in memory. The next three chapters explored which communicative signals are responsible for the memory benefits observed in female participants. Chapter 4 eliminates the possibility that observing a head-lift is responsible for the memory effects, and confirms that eye contact is the key factor. Chapter 4 also reveals that 'social exclusion' (i.e., not being looked at) can hinder memory. Chapters 5 and 6 determine that other socially communicative signals, both non-verbal and verbal, can also modulate verbal memory. This demonstrates that a communicative signal in general, rather than one specific to the eyes, is modulating memory performance. However, Chapter 6 demonstrates that a non-gaze referential cue can influence memory in male participants; which stands in contrast to the original finding that eye contact did not. Thus, males appear to process eye gaze differently from other social cues. Collectively, the results of this thesis reveal the importance of using social cues that are communicative in nature (e.g., real people) when studying human memory. While the mechanisms through which different communicative signals affect memory are, at least partially shared, their effects appear to vary with the gender of the observer.

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The processing of cartoony and photorealistic faces (2019)

Cartoony faces are everywhere, from texting apps to children’s cartoons. Cartoony faces are also often used in cognitive research contexts, where they are used to stand in as simplified photographic faces for their ease of manipulation and creation. This presents an often unspoken assumption: that a cartoony face is analogous to a photographic face in how it will be responded to, understood, and processed by the brain. Over 8 experiments, my dissertation aims to better understand how cartoony faces are similar to photographic faces, and where they differ. In the first two experiments, I found that there was no evidence that people see themselves in simple cartoony faces, as had been suggested in the past, and also that participants associated their photographs more with themselves than drawings of themselves. In Experiments 3 and 4, I found that, as faces become more cartoonized, they become easier to discriminate expressions on as well, and that such changes to ‘cartoonization’ is also represented by changes in neural processing. In Experiments 5 and 6, I found further evidence that cartoony imagery was easier to process than photographic imagery, as measured by the amount of attention – i.e., eye-gaze – that was necessary to respond to cartoony imagery vs. photorealistic imagery. I also found evidence that entirely cartoony displays were more likely to be viewed as congruent when relating symbols to faces compared to mixed media displays. Finally, in Experiments 7 and 8, I found that novel, unknown expressions could be learned easily on both photographic faces as well as cartoony faces, although there was no habituation to cartoony faces while there was to photographic faces. My research demonstrates that cartoony imagery is easier to process compared to photorealistic imagery, and that the extent of this has never fully been described. My research also demonstrates several examples of how cartoony faces show different patterns of allocated attention and different patterns of elicited ERPs compared to photorealistic images.

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Examining the Deployment of Overt and Covert Attention to Social Stimuli in Naturalistic and Laboratory Environments (2016)

The study of social attention has in large part been constrained to studying how individuals look to images or videos of other people within highly controlled and isolated laboratory environments. The belief is that measuring responses to non-interactive images or videos of people can serve to inform and predict everyday social attentional behaviours. However, this implicit assumption has gone relatively untested. In order to better characterize how and why people pay attention to others, the present thesis explores the proposition that social attentional processes are generalizable across levels of realism and scale. In so doing, this thesis describes social attentional deployment based on whether it is oriented overtly (shifting attention with the eyes) or covertly (shifting attention without an eye movement), within both naturalistic and laboratory environments. Chapters 2 and 3 explore whether and how social attention is directed to nearby others within naturalistic environments, and identifies major departures from conclusions that were generated using computer-based laboratory tasks. In particular, the results of the first two chapters suggest a weakened role for overt orienting and a strong reliance on covert mechanisms. Chapter 4 confirms that a covert bias to social stimuli can also be observed within the lab. Chapter 5 moves away from initial selection of social stimuli within the environment to explore how attention is deployed to facial features once a person is already attended to, and demonstrates a non-volitional drive to overtly orient attention to the eyes. Finally, Chapter 6 asks whether overt and covert attentional selection of socially-relevant facial features have different behavioural effects, and reveals an important functional benefit of orienting attention overtly rather than covertly during face encoding for later recognition. Collectively, the results of this thesis support a generalized importance of attending to social stimuli and also extend upon previous work to demonstrate that the deployment of social attention is modulated by the level of selection required, as well as degree of interaction afforded by the situation.

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Individual Differences in Oculomotor Control: The Case of Action Video Game Players (2014)

A growing field of research has highlighted that experience with action video games, characterized by being particularly fast paced and attentionally demanding, yields performance improvements across a host of cognitive paradigms. The prevailing account is that extensive action video game experience gives rise to improvements in the control of selective attention. By recording eye movements in a series of experiments where participants completed an oculomotor capture task, the present dissertation aims to use a more direct measure of the spatial allocation of attention to further examine the basis for the improvements demonstrated by action video game players (AVGPs) relative to non-video game players (NVGPs). Chapter 2 examines the basis for AVGPs’ reported resistance to distracting information. In addition to demonstrating that the AVGP advantage extends to overt attention, the results reveal that AVGPs are better able to avoid distraction by making fewer shifts of attention to salient task-irrelevant information. Chapter 3 examines whether the AVGPs’ resistance to distraction is a result of improvements in selection and/or response-based processes. Evidence is provided to suggest that AVGPs’ performance is enhanced via benefits to both processes. Independent of video game experience, Chapter 4 examines the influence that distractor awareness has on oculomotor control and reveals that it can benefit performance. This knowledge was applied in Chapter 5 to assess whether distractor awareness interacts with AVGP and NVGP performance. Results demonstrate that distractor awareness can eliminate the AVGP advantage. Chapter 6 examined whether AVGP would outperform NVGPs when biologically relevant stimuli was added to search displays. Results reveal that AVGP benefits generalize to more complex stimuli. Chapter 7 provides a test of the recently proposed learning to learn account of AVGP performance benefits and disconfirms this explanation. Collectively, the dissertation demonstrates how improved attentional control can be manifested in AVGPs to reduce distraction from salient visual information. Importantly, the conclusions drawn from this body of work are consistent with the notion that AVGPs experience more efficient processing of sensory information than NVGPs, providing a possible mechanism subserving the general AVGP advantage observed across a variety of cognitive tasks.

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Opening a window on Balint syndrome: testing a spatial restriction of attention theory (2010)

Bálint syndrome is a disorder of visual attention resulting from bilateral parieto-occipital lesions. Patients experience several visual deficits, including an inability to see more than one object at once, and often an inability to see single objects as wholes. This dissertation examines whether impaired object processing in Bálint syndrome results from a restricted spatial area of visual attention, which creates a “restricted visual window” through which patients view the world. In Study 1, brain activity of healthy individuals is recorded while they view hierarchical stimuli, stimuli that patients tend to see at a local, but not global, level. Activity increased when participants identified global letters, suggesting that patients may have difficulty perceiving these objects due to extra processing demands of the global form. Study 2 uses hierarchical letters to investigate whether patients can employ explicit viewing strategies to compensate for their visual deficits. The patient showed difficulty identifying the global level of the letters, and did not employ a strategy to compensate- she appeared to have little control over what she sees. Study 3 employs a manipulation of healthy vision to model these behaviours to understand what underlies this disorder. Restricting healthy individuals to seeing a small visual area (like “tunnel vision”) leads to object identification patterns similar those of Bálint patients, supporting the idea that a restricted area of visual processing may underlie the disorder. Study 4 used photos depicting social scenes to investigate how patients view complex stimuli. Unlike healthy individuals, patients do not look at the eyes of people in the scenes. In Studies 5-6, healthy individuals view these stimuli through the restricted viewing scenario from Study 3 to determine whether restricted viewing can also model patients’ viewing of complex stimuli. Like patients, healthy individuals made reduced fixations on eyes of people in scenes. Study 7 revisits a patient after some recovery. Her scanning of scenes was approaching normal. Manipulations of the restricted viewing paradigm modeled this recovery in healthy individuals, lending further support to the restricted vision model. The dissertation provides insights into normal and abnormal vision, particularly how the brain creates the objects we see.

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Gaze selection in the real world : finding evidence for a preferential selection of eyes (2008)

We have a strong intuition that people's eyes are unique, socially informative stimuli. As such, it is reasonable to propose that humans have developed a fundamental tendency to preferentially attend to eyes in the environment. The empirical evidence to support this intuition is, however, remarkably thin. Over the course of eight chapters, the present thesis considers the area of social attention, and what special role (if any) the selection of eyes has in it. Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate that when observers are shown complex natural scenes, they look at the eyes more frequently than any other region. This selection preference is enhanced when the social content and activity in the scene is high, and when the task is to report on the attentional states in the scene. Chapters 4 and 5 establish that the bias to select eyes extends to a variety of tasks, suggesting that it may be fundamental to human social attention. In addition, Chapter 5 shows that observers who are told that they will have to remember the scenes look more often at the eyes than observers who are unaware of the forthcoming memory test; moreover this difference between groups persists to scene recognition. Chapter 6 examines whether the preference for eyes can be explained by visual saliency. It cannot. Chapter 7 compares the selection of eyes to another socially communicative cue, the arrow. The results shed light on a recent controversy in the social attention field, and indicate again that there is a fundamental bias to select the eyes. Collectively the data suggest that for typically developing adults, eyes are rich, socially communicative stimuli that are preferentially attended to relative to other stimuli in the environment.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2018)
Re-engaging with reading material after a mind wandering episode (2015)

Despite active growth in the field of mind wandering over the past decade, there is currently a lack of understanding of what happens when mind wandering ends and individuals’ focus returns to their original task. The present thesis proposes and explores the idea that following a mind wandering occurrence during a reading task, individuals will re-engage with the text by re-reading. In Experiment 1 participants were asked to indicate where in the passage they mind wandered and note any re-reading that occurred. Experiment 2 extended this investigation to address whether re-reading as a compensatory behaviour extends to non-plot based texts, if it differs as a function of mind wandering methodology (self-caught versus probe-caught) and explored the subjective decision to complete re-engagement behaviours. Results from both studies revealed that participants re-read following mind wandering occurrences, with rates up to 45%. Furthermore, participants typically re-read 1-2 lines of text, or less, and were equally likely to re-read following probe-caught and self-caught reports of mind wandering. Experiment 2 also established that individuals were most likely to engage in compensatory acts when they felt that further clarification was needed. This thesis provides a framework that could extend to other settings, both those that easily allow for re-engagement via reviewing missed information (e.g., listening to an audiobook) and those that do not (e.g., attending live lectures, driving). Understanding how individuals re-engage in various settings where mind wandering is likely to occur can provide insight into the fluctuation of attentional focus and the immediate impact of a mind wandering episode.

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The effect of implied social presence on non-social attention tasks (2015)

The presence of another person, even if implied, has been shown to affect various social behaviours. Recently, the effect of implied presence has been extended to the field of social attention, specifically its impact on where people look at social stimuli. The present study investigated if implied presence, triggered by a recording camera switched on in the testing room, would have an effect on non-social spatial attention tasks: visual search, attentional capture, spatial cuing, and the SART. Implied social presence had a significant performance effect on all tasks by facilitating response time without any cost to accuracy. Critically, this facilitatory social presence effect was additive with the effect of spatial orienting. These data indicate that the significant effect of implied social presence is not limited to social domains, and even very simple lab-based nonsocial attention tasks are affected. Social presence operates independent of the spatial attention system and does not require real social observation -- simply the idea of observation through a camera is sufficient to enhance task performance.

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Motion cues enhance gaze processing (2012)

In four experiments, we investigated the role of motion in gaze perception. In Experiment 1, we developed and evaluated a comprehensive stimulus set of small eye movements at three different gaze angles (1, 2 and 3 degrees visual angle) and demonstrated that observers were able to detect and discriminate these small eye movements with a high degree of fidelity. In Experiments 2 and 3, we evaluated discrimination accuracy and confidence to dynamic and static gaze stimuli. We demonstrated that the reason for the high sensitivity to gaze in Experiment 1 was due predominantly to the presence of the motion signal in the video stimuli. Accuracy to dynamic gaze was significantly higher than accuracy to static gaze. In addition, the size of the gaze angle (i.e. signal strength) increased accuracy for static gaze despite the fact that confidence for these stimuli was consistently moderate. This latter result suggests that the dynamic gaze signal is qualitatively different from the static gaze signal. In Experiment, 4 we tested this possibility by reversing the contrast polarity of half of the gaze stimuli. This manipulation has been shown to disrupt normal gaze processing. We reasoned that if the perception of static and dynamic gaze are fundamentally different, contrast reversal will differentially effect these two types of gaze stimuli. Indeed, contrast reversal impaired the perception of static, but not dynamic gaze, confirming that the perception of dynamic and static gaze are qualitatively different.

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Greater distractor interference during vertical saccades: the time course of horizontal, vertical, and oblique saccadic curvature (2010)

In three studies, we characterize the effect of a nearby distractor on vertical, horizontal and oblique saccadic curvature under normal saccade preparation times. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants made saccades to targets in the presence or absence of a nearby distractor. Consistent with previous findings, longer-latency vertical saccades showed greater curvature away from a distractor than did oblique or horizontal saccades. At short latencies, vertical saccades showed greater curvature towards the distractor. We propose that vertical saccades may be prone to greater distractor interference due to the superior colliculus, a midbrain region implicated in attentional and saccadic shifts, under-representing vertical target objects, which results in a relative over-representation of non-vertical distractor objects. In Experiment 3, we tested this hypothesis by having participants make saccades to vertical or horizontal targets in the presence or absence of bright or dim distractors. We reasoned that weaker representations for vertical targets would allow for greater interference from nearby distractors, which would be especially pronounced when distractors are highly salient. Consistent with this prediction, we found that only the trajectory of vertical saccades was modulated by distractor luminance.

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