The development of fine-grained sensitivity to eye contact after 6years of age
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Adults use eye contact as a cue to the mental and emotional states of others. Here, we examined developmental changes in the ability to discriminate between eye contact and averted gaze. Children (6-, 8-, 10-, and 14-year-olds) and adults (n=18/age) viewed photographs of a model fixating the center of a camera lens and a series of positions to the left/right or upward/downward and judged whether the model's gaze was direct or averted to the left/right or upward/downward. The horizontal range of fixation positions leading to the perception of direct gaze (the cone of gaze) was more than 50% larger in 6-year-olds than in adults, but it was adult-like and smaller than the vertical cone of gaze by 8 years of age. The vertical cone of gaze was large and statistically adult-like by age 6, with only a small linear reduction thereafter. In all age groups, the horizontal cone of gaze was centered on the bridge of the participant's nose and the vertical cone was centered slightly below the participant's eye height. These findings indicate that until after age 6, relatively poor sensitivity to direct versus averted gaze limits children's ability to use gaze cues to make social judgments.
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