Images of pointing fingers are much better at diverting people's attention than directional arrows, new psychology research suggests.
In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Perception, researchers at the universities of Exeter and Lincoln showed that biological cues like an outstretched index finger or a pair of eyes looking to one side affect people's attention even when they are irrelevant to the task at hand. Abstract directional symbols like pointed arrows or the written words "left" and "right" do not have the same effect.
Dr Nicola Gregory and Professor Timothy Hodgson compared the influence of eye gaze, finger pointing, arrows and directional word cues on eye movement responses in a series of experiments conducted with students at the University of Exeter.
Participants were asked to look in the opposite direction to a black dot which appeared on the left or right of a computer screen, while an eye tracking device worn on their head recorded how quickly they responded. Before the task began, participants were warned that they would also see images of eyes, hands or arrows pointing left or right, or the written words "left" or "right," but that these images were not relevant to the task and should be ignored.
The researchers found that even though the students had been explicitly instructed to ignore the eye, hand, arrow and word images, the direction in which some of these cues were pointing affected the time it took them to correctly look away from the target dot.
"Interestingly, it was only the cues which were biological -- the eye gaze and finger pointing cues -- which had this effect," said Prof. Hodgson, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln. "Road sign arrows and words "left" and "right" had no influence at all. What's more, the eyes and fingers seemed to affect the participants' reaction times even when the images were flashed on the screen for only a tenth of a second."
The authors suggest that the reason that these biological signals may be particularly good at directing attention is because they are used by humans and some other species as forms of non-verbal communication: Where someone is looking or pointing indicates to others not only what they are paying attention to, but also what they might be feeling or what they might be planning on doing next.
The study findings have potential implications for understanding the best way to try to influence peoples' attention in everyday life.
Dr Gregory, now a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, said: "Rather than using arrows on signposts, it may be prudent to reinstate the traditional 'finger posts' which depicted an extended pointing hand, which are now only seen occasionally in rural areas in the UK, despite their replacements retaining the original name. And rather than the words "look left" or "look right" painted on the road at a pedestrian crossing, a pair of eyes gazing in one or other direction ought to do the job better. They may even reduce the number of road accidents."
- Nicola J Gregory, Timothy L Hodgson. Giving subjects the eye and showing them the finger: Socio-biological cues and saccade generation in the anti-saccade task. Perception, 2012; 41 (2): 131 DOI: 10.1068/p7085
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