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Tilt of head boosts social engagement: Study

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Press Trust of India Los Angeles
Tilting your head during a conversation can help you appear less threatening, allowing people engage better, a study has found.
Every time we look at a face, we take in a flood of information effortlessly: age, gender, race, expression, the direction of our subject's gaze, perhaps even their mood. Faces draw us in and help us navigate relationships and the world around us.
Understanding how facial recognition works has great value -- perhaps particularly for those whose brains process information in ways that make eye contact challenging, including people with autism. Helping people tap into this flow of social cues could be transformational.
""Looking at the eyes allows you to gather much more information," said Nicolas Davidenko, an assistant professor at the University of California (US) Santa Cruz in the US.
By contrast, the inability to make eye contact has causal effects.
"It impairs your facial processing abilities and puts you at a real social disadvantage," he said.
People who are reluctant to make eye contact may also be misperceived as disinterested, distracted, or aloof, he said.
Scientists have known for decades that when we look at a face, we tend to focus on the left side of the face we're viewing, from the viewer's perspective. Called the "left-gaze bias," this phenomenon is thought to be rooted in the brain, the right hemisphere of which dominates the face-processing task.
Using eye-tracking technology researchers found that when a person tilts their head, the left-gaze bias completely vanished and an "upper eye bias" emerged, even with a tilt as minor as 11 degrees off centre.
"People tend to look first at whichever eye is higher," Davidenko said.
"A slight tilt kills the left-gaze bias that has been known for so long. That's what's so interesting. I was surprised how strong it was," he added.
Perhaps more importantly for people with autism, Davidenko found that the tilt leads people to look more at the eyes, perhaps because it makes them more approachable and less threatening.
"Across species, direct eye contact can be threatening. When the head is tilted, we look at the upper eye more than either or both eyes when the head is upright. I think this finding could be used therapeutically," said Davidenko.
The findings may also be of value for people with amblyopia, or "lazy eye," which can be disconcerting to others. "In conversation, they may want to tilt their head so their dominant eye is up," he said.
"That taps into our natural tendency to fix our gaze on that eye," he added.

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First Published: Dec 30 2018 | 3:40 PM IST

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