Picture this scenario:

  1. You are a student enrolled in a large class

  2. You arrived slightly late to the class, so you are sitting at the back of the class

  3. You raise your hands to ask the teacher a question.

  4. As you speak, you observe that the entire class turn their body sideways to look at you, even the students who are sitting in the front row. You feel self-conscious

enter image description here Three thoughts are now going through your mind:

  1. What are "ears" for, again?

  2. It must be really uncomfortable and awkward to twist your body like that.

  3. What is the incurred "loss" if the other students did not look at you and simply listened?

Can some expert chime in the reasoning as to why students have to look at you when they are listening?

Could this be some sort of form of peer pressure?

Could the act of looking help to localize the sound (or synthesize the information) in some way?

Do we look so we can prejudge? For example, if we see that the asker/speaker is another professor, we pay more attention to the question as it might be more sophisticated than asked by a student.

  • 2
    why wouldn't they look? – AliceD Sep 13 at 20:17
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    This sounds like more of a rant than a question based in psychology/neuroscience. – Bryan Krause Sep 13 at 21:05
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    Statements like "You feel self-conscious" which seems to imply other people are making you self-conscious with their gaze, "What are "ears" for, again" that seems to imply people should be directing their ears rather than their gaze, having a lot of negative connotation in the reasons you suggest, etc. It might not have been your intent, but the impression I got from your question was "People are looking at me and it bothers me, what silly reason do they have for doing this?" – Bryan Krause Sep 13 at 21:26
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    I think its just human need to get familiar with our surroundings. we hate what we don't know. that's why we are willing to put ourselves in a awkward and uncomfortable position, just to take a look at the face that the voice belongs to which we are hearing. it helps us humanize the voice. – ConfusedANDHungry01 Sep 14 at 13:39
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    I look at people who are speaking to pick up additional information from their body language. If that is not available, then I go with their spoken words which includes the sound of the words as they speak them. If I am reading a book, then all I have are the words. If I have someone present in front of me or whom I can see by turning my head, not only do I get the words, I get the sound of the words as well as the visual communication from watching their bodies. – Frank Hubeny Sep 16 at 3:29

Well, your ears are shaped in a way that is optimized for sound sources in front of you, so it could be that. But my non-expert bet is that probably they're using gaze to signal that they're paying attention. The signal is not just to you "I'm following what you're saying" but to everyone else as well, "hey, check out what's going on over there" creating joint attention that coordinates the group in thinking about your question. This might be uncomfortable for you (although it's probably a compliment that you're worth paying attention to), but the general mechanism of having super-obvious cues to attention and a predisposition to follow them to create joint attention is a very effective way of coordinating social behavior. This is so fundamentally human that most people take it for granted, but that doesn't stop academics from studying it. You could maybe try something like

Pfeiffer, U. J., Vogeley, K., & Schilbach, L. (2013). From gaze cueing to dual eye-tracking: novel approaches to investigate the neural correlates of gaze in social interaction. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37(10), 2516-2528.

or

Brooks, A. M. M. R. (2017). Eyes wide shut: The importance of eyes in infant gaze-following and understanding other minds. In Gaze-Following (pp. 229-254). Psychology Press.

...if you really want a deep-dive into this.

  • Thanks for the answer! It is not uncomfortable for me personally because I never ask question in classrooms, but I do observe people having to look at the subject who is asking the question. I like how you said "it is so fundamentally human that people take it for granted". Social behaviours are patterned and observable, but sometimes they seem so natural to us that we don't seriously examine them in detail. – Aåkon Sep 13 at 21:26

Gaze goes a bit beyond merely focusing on the source of sounds. I think it's fair to say that not everyone is going to do this all the time. Context and the person(s) involved matter:

Decades of research into the use of gaze in natural interactions [...] shows how gaze can signal attentiveness, competence and social dominance. This means that gaze can be a positive, neutral or negative cue, depending on the context. Direct gaze can be used to regulate conversation shifts [...] and to signal social interest [...]. Prolonged gaze or staring leads to avoidance behaviours [...]

So really interesting or dumb questions are more likely to get a head turn. And the participants doing the head turns are more likely to be those really interested or at least not socially shy. Also, long exchanges with the podium speaker are more likely to get that either because the exchange could be really interesting or perceived as really boorish. In that latter case a long gaze is a form of peer pressure to shut up and let the podium speaker continue; or maybe just let the rest of the students leave the amphitheater if this is an end-of-class question.

Since you're from Japan, I tried to find if there's a cultural difference with Europe or US on this issue specifically (gazing at someone asking questions in class or other large audience)... but I couldn't find anything particular insofar. In general, it is known that gaze behavior is culture-related to some extent, e.g. Japanese tend to gaze less at someone (compared to Canadians) when answering a question.

Another interesting issue would be how many students initiate this type of gaze and how many are simply respond (follow) the gaze of others... The two are distinct processes:

Whereas first elements of RJA [Responding Joint Attention] are already evident at 6 months of age, IJA [Initiating Joint Attention] does not emerge before the second year of life (Mundy and Newell, 2007; Mundy et al., 2007). Chimpanzees followed the experimenters gaze on a frequent basis but did not try to initiate JA (Tomasello and Carpenter, 2005). Interestingly, differential development of both RJA and IJA can be observed in brain systems from childhood to adulthood (Oberwelland et al., 2016), as well as during atypical development in disorders such as autism (Oberwelland et al., 2017). In autism, IJA is typically more impaired than RJA and emerges much later than in typical development (Mundy, 2003). These empirical findings clearly point toward separate underlying cognitive systems of RJA and IJA (Mundy and Newell, 2007).

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