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So that guy in the car next to you probably wasn’t really staring at you after all

April 10, 2013

Researchers at the University of Sydney have published a study that shows that people often feel like others are staring at them, even when it isn’t true.

To tell if they’re under someone’s gaze, people look at the position of the other person’s eyes and the direction of their heads, Professor Clifford explains. These visual cues are then sent to the brain where there are specific areas that compute this information.

However, the brain doesn’t just passively receive information from the eyes. The study shows that when people have limited visual cues, such as in dark conditions or when the other person is wearing sunglasses, the brain takes over with what it ‘knows’.

In other words, we tend to assume that other people are looking at us even when they aren’t. It makes sense, of course. Being stared at was something our ancestors would need to have been keenly aware of. It’s similar to noticing predators in the wild. It would almost always have been better for them to assume that the weirdly formed rock in the distance was a lion and be wrong than to get it the other way around.

There, you learned something today…

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