You’re reading the newspaper on the bus, and suddenly you sense someone reading over your shoulder. Does knowing you’re viewing alongside someone affect what you attend to and what you see? And does it matter if we think the over-the-shoulder reader is helping us or working against us? We call this Joint Perception (Richardson, Street, Tan, Kirkham, Hoover & Cavanaugh, 2012).
We showed participants a set of images on the screen at the same time – some were positive (e.g., a baby seal), some negative (e.g., surgery), and others neutral (e.g., a dockyard). Two participants sat back-to-back and were told, trial by trial, whether they were viewing the images together or alone. When they believed they were viewing together, they spent a greater amount of time looking at the negative image.
But is this just a low-level epiphenomenon? Is it just the case that the position of the eye is guided by social beliefs, rather than having a cognitive effect on how people think? To check, we also explored whether recognition memory was affected by viewing alone or together. Indeed, viewing together improved recognition memory (Richardson et al., 2012), in line with Shteynberg’s (2010) finding that joint viewing causes stimuli to become “psychologically prominent”.
So what is it about “looking together” that causes these differences? We were influenced by the joint action literature, which shows people form representations of another person’s intentional actions when they are performing together. This suggests that (a) beliefs about cooperation (rather than competition), and (b) performing a task together are causing these effects. As predicted, the nature of the joint perception effect is dependent on a belief that the two are collaborating or competing (Richardson, Street & Tan, 2010) and whether the people believe they are collaborating on the same task or on two different tasks (Richardson et al., 2012).
Richardson, D. C., Street, C. N. H., & Tan, J. (2010). Joint perception: Gaze and beliefs about social context. Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society, 290-296. [pdf]
Richardson, D. C., Street, C. N. H., Tan, J., Kirkham, N. Z., Hoover, M. A., & Cavanaugh, A. (2012). Joint perception: Gaze and social context. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00194. [pdf]