The discovery represents more than a confirmation of what most people believe about their bosses, said the researchers. The findings reveal that gaze-following is more than a reflex action; that it also involves lightning-fast social perception.
Such a discovery in monkeys gives the researchers an invaluable animal model that enables them to tease apart the reflexive-versus-social mechanisms that govern behavior, they said.
In particular, they can begin to understand the physiology and neural machinery of status, they said. Further animal studies will enable them to use drugs and genetic analysis to figure out what hormonal and/or genetic influences determine who becomes the monkey or human equivalent of Donald Trump, and who becomes a Woody Allen.
The researchers -- graduate student Stephen Shepherd, postdoctoral fellow Robert Deaner and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology Michael Platt -- published their findings in the Feb. 21, 2006, issue of Current Biology. The research was supported by the Cure Autism Now Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health.
"By and large, most studies of gaze-following in humans supported the idea that it was a reflexive attention mechanism," said Platt. "People in those studies would tend to shift their attention where they saw another person looking, even if it wasn't predictive of some event happening around them. And people didn't seem able to inhibit or control their reaction." However, he said, there were hints that gaze-following didn't have all the features of a purely reflexive action, but these were only hints.<