How Personality and Psychopathology Shape Our Focus on Faces

Have you ever wondered why we’re drawn to human faces? Why, when looking at a photograph, our eyes naturally seek out the faces amongst the objects and scenery? It turns out, our personality traits and levels of psychopathology might have something to do with it. Fascinating, right? That’s what a study conducted by Marius Rubo from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and his team, discovered. Their research findings, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, offer valuable insights into how our minds work and how our characteristics influence our preferences.

Examining the Face-Seeing Phenomenon

Let’s delve into this intriguing study, which involved 120 participants, most of whom were students. The researchers showed these individuals 20 different photographs, all depicting people in busy environments, kind of like searching for Waldo but in more ordinary settings. But how did the researchers measure where the participants were looking? They used an innovative cursor-based tool that blurred the photographs and only provided clarity within a 20-pixel radius around the cursor.

Afterwards, participants had to answer a questionnaire assessing the “Big Five” personality traits, which are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. The researchers also investigated various facets of psychopathology, including social anxiety, depression, empathy, alexithymia (which is when you find it challenging to describe your emotions), and specific social values.

The Face-Preference and Personality Connection

So, what did the researchers discover? They found that extraversion, agreeableness, and openness – three of the “Big Five” traits – were positively correlated with an increased focus on faces. That means if you’re more extroverted, agreeable, or open, you’re more likely to focus on faces in images. This tendency was also higher among participants who reported more significant empathy levels.

Interestingly, participants who scored high on social anxiety, depression, and alexithymia, or had difficulty expressing their emotions, were less likely to focus on faces. In general, participants spent about 17% of their image viewing time looking at faces.

The Psychological Underpinnings of Visual Focus

The study’s findings raise some intriguing implications about how personality traits and psychopathology levels can impact our visual attention. It also underscores the fact that our psychology is interwoven with how we perceive and engage with the world.

Limitations and Future Directions

The researchers did acknowledge certain limitations in their study. For instance, they noted that using cursor positioning might not be the perfect proxy for gaze tracking because it is slower than direct gazing. Furthermore, they clarified that attention to images of faces is partly different from attention in real-life settings.

Nonetheless, the study is a significant stepping stone for future research. It opens the door for further investigations into the myriad ways our mental makeup can influence our behaviors and preferences.

More Than Meets the Eye

So, the next time you’re leafing through a magazine or scrolling through social media, take a moment to notice where your eyes linger. You might just discover something new about your personality or state of mind! As this fascinating study shows, there’s a lot more to our preferences and behaviors than meets the eye. And by understanding these connections better, we can gain deeper insights into ourselves and others, contributing to a more empathetic and understanding society.

Remember, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “the eyes are the window to the soul,” and it appears that our eyes might just tell us more about our personalities and psychopathologies than we ever realized.

Marius Rubo, Ivo Käthner, Simone Munsch. Attention to faces in images is associated with personality and psychopathology. PLOS ONE, 2023; 18 (2): e0280427. Link

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