Predicting the attention of others

Kirsten Ziman, Sarah C. Kimmel, Kathryn T. Farrell, Michael S.A. Graziano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As social animals, people are highly sensitive to the attention of others. Seeing someone else gaze at an object automatically draws one’s own attention to that object. Monitoring the attention of others aids in reconstructing their emotions, beliefs, and intentions and may play a crucial role in social alignment. Recently, however, it has been suggested that the human brain constructs a predictive model of other people’s attention that is far more involved than a moment-by-moment monitoring of gaze direction. The hypothesized model learns the statistical patterns in other people’s attention and extrapolates how attention is likely to move. Here, we tested the hypothesis of a predictive model of attention. Subjects saw movies of attention displayed as a bright spot shifting around a scene. Subjects were able to correctly distinguish natural attention sequences (based on eye tracking of prior participants) from altered sequences (e.g., played backward or in a scrambled order). Even when the attention spot moved around a blank background, subjects could distinguish natural from scrambled sequences, suggesting a sensitivity to the spatial–temporal statistics of attention. Subjects also showed an ability to recognize the attention patterns of different individuals. These results suggest that people possess a sophisticated model of the normal statistics of attention and can identify deviations from the model. Monitoring attention is therefore more than simply registering where someone else’s eyes are pointing. It involves predictive modeling, which may contribute to our remarkable social ability to predict the mind states and behavior of others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2307584120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • attention
  • eye movement
  • predictive models
  • social attention
  • social cognition


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