Paying Attention to Faces May Be Linked With Psychopathology Levels and ‘Big Five’ Personality Traits

Summary: Those who are more empathetic and those who score high on extraversion, agreeableness, and openness personality traits are more likely to focus on faces. Those with psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and alexithymia tend to focus less on faces.

Source: PLOS

A person’s personality and psychopathology levels may be associated with how strongly they prefer to focus on human faces within images, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Marius Rubo from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

People tend to be drawn to other human faces when viewing images—even visually busy images. Previous research points to personality factors or specific diagnoses potentially playing a role in how strongly specific individuals hold this preference for focusing on human faces. In this study, the authors assessed how several influential psychological traits might affect an individual’s preference to focus on faces.

One-hundred-twenty participants (mostly students) viewed 20 photographs depicting people in busy environments while their attention was assessed. To do this, the authors used a cursor-based tool: The photographs were blurred and only became clear within a 20-pixel radius around the cursor, which participants could move around the photograph.

Afterward, the participants responded to a questionnaire assessing the “big five” personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. The questionnaires also asked about multiple facets of psychopathology including social anxiety, depression, empathy, alexithymia (inability to describe one’s emotions), and specific social values.

This shows different faces
People tend to be drawn to other human faces when viewing images—even visually busy images. Image is in the public domain

In terms of personality traits, extraversion, agreeableness and openness to experience were positively correlated with an increased focus on faces. Individuals who reported higher empathy levels were also more likely to focus more on faces. Meanwhile, participants who scored highly on certain other facets of psychopathology, including social anxiety, depression and alexithymia, tended to focus less on faces. In general, participants spent about 17% of their image viewing time looking at faces within the images.

The authors note that cursor positioning is an imperfect proxy for gaze tracking, being slower than direct gazing. They also note that attention to images of faces is partly different from attention in real life settings. However, the results suggest that face preferences may be linked both to personality and psychopathology levels.

The authors add, “Pictures of human faces attract most people’s attention, but the phenomenon is weaker in people with higher levels of social anxiety, depression and other forms of psychopathology.”

About this facial attention and personality research news

Author: Press Office
Source: PLOS
Contact: Press Office – PLOS
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Attention to faces in images is associated with personality and psychopathology” by Marius Rubo et al. PLOS ONE


Attention to faces in images is associated with personality and psychopathology

Humans show a robust tendency to look at faces in images, but also differ consistently in the strength of this attentional preference. Previous research remained inconclusive as to how a stronger face preference may be indicative of an individual’s personality or clinical characteristics.

Here we investigated face preferences in 120 participants (primarily drawn from a student population) who freely viewed photos in an internet browser showing a person in the context of a visually rich environment while attention was assessed using a cursor-based technique.

Participants differed consistently in the strength of their face preference across images. A stronger preference for faces was correlated positively with openness to experience, extraversion, agreeableness and empathizing and was correlated negatively with social anxiety, depression levels and alexithymia.

Trait measures were linked through a strong common factor which was additionally correlated with face preference. We conclude that face preferences may be linked to personality traits and to psychopathology but that an attribution to a specific facet of psychopathology may not be warranted.

Future research should investigate links between face preferences and personality features in more diverse samples and across differing social situations.

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  1. I haven’t reviewed the study but the summary above raised some questions for me. The first was, how did they compensate for sociopaths in the study? They would have focused on faces, to gain understanding and control over any situation. They would have also likely answered your follow up questionaire so as to exhibit “extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness” while suppressing indications of neuroticism. Next, I wondered how indicitive this cursor method is. When it comes to faces we humans see them even when we don’t realize it and even see them when they aren’t there. I don’t think this method truly captures how often our eye would actually linger/focus on a face versus our mind instructing our hand to move a cursor over or past a human face. I think this study indicates that open, agreeable and extroverted people consiously seek out human connection. The question is, do they also unconsciously as well?

  2. Sorry to break it to you, but this is already a fairly standard assessment tool for autism. Anxiety, depression, and alexithymia are some of the most common difficulties for autistic people. You should probably follow up with some other autism assessments. People like me who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum and develop good coping skills at a young age are almost never diagnosed, so it is not likely to get picked up in a simple questionnaire.

  3. U mean people that are anxious are less likely to look someone eye to eye? Seriously, just send me the money for the next study I’ll take care of the rest…

  4. Mmm.. I have to disagree. Started early in life I was a very shy child and up through my adolescence years. Remember I would sit and just watch people and their reactions to one another
    and different situations. Now as an adult, I can read people very well. when dealing with Social anxiety I tend to look at faces and body language because it puts me as ease knowing I kinda already know.

  5. Did they account for other factors like physical pain? People who are in a great deal of physical pain also tend to focus less on damn near everything.

    120 is also an extremely small sample size. What were the ages of the people? Age can also be a factor in what people pay attention to.

    This is a very broad conclusion to reach from such a small study that doesn’t seem to have controlled for other possible factors in the study, such as physical pain or physical diseases that might cause someone to pay less attention to others. It could also be something as simple as: Shyness. Some very shy people tend to shy away – yes, I said that – human faces.

  6. The Polyvagal Theory of Stephen Porges, with its proposed hiercharchy of autonomic responses to the neuroception of safety or danger/life threat that either activate the Social Engagement System (focused on facial and vocal expressions) or trigger autonomic survival responses of figth/flight or submit/shutdown, may offer an explanation of the results found in this study.

    In short, one can say that in people with psychopathology the Social Engagement System (and thus the focus on faces) is less active because the neuroception of safety is compromised due to earlier (traumatic) experiences.

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