They say the eyes are a window into the soul. In reality, they are a window into cognitive processing and related activities, such as spatial memory, linguistic analysis and decision-making. It has been substantiated by past scientific experiments that the information derived from eye gaze could be used to manipulate an individual’s decisions. Essentially, by asking for a decision as soon as someone gazes at one statement over the other, scientists could elicit the target answer they wanted from the experiment participants. This is due to the tendency of people glancing more often towards the option that they favour, when asked to choose between two given options, and ultimately choosing it when forced to in a timed-environment.
An example is Bird’s study; he found that eye movements can have a casual influence on preference formation. When eye movements were made towards the stimuli, faces that were presented for longer durations were preferred.
The presence of an exposure duration effect for faces presented over a longer period of time has implications for decision theories, which place emphasis on the role of eye movements in decision making. If the experimenter knows when individuals move their eyes, they can influence complex moral decisions, simply by adjusting the timing of the decisions.
Philip Pärnamets, a cognitive scientist from Lund University, aimed to see if this logic applies to moral reasoning as well. Moral decisions generally differ in nature from general decision-making and have been considered separate in scientific research within the field. In Pärnamets’ paper ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, he and his colleagues conducted a study where participants’ eye gazes were monitored and information about their gaze was used to change the timing of their decisions, as well as answers to moral questions. The paper concluded that they can be manipulated toward alternatives without presenting different arguments.
During the experiment, participants fixated on the ‘target option’ – which is randomely predetermined- for a set amount of time. Researchers then asked them to choose between the two alternatives, so that the participant’s answer would be systematically biased towards their target option.
Even abstract moral cognition is partly constituted by interactions with the immediate environment, and is supported by gaze-dependent decision processes. Participants in the experiment had a choice of statements including ‘Murder is sometimes justified’ and ‘Paying taxes is a good thing’, then the psychologists tracked the volunteers’ gaze as the two options appeared on a screen. Once the tracker had determined that a person had spent at least 750 milliseconds looking at one answer and 250 milliseconds at another, the screen changed quickly, prompting them to make an immediate decision.
On the other hand, Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher at UCSD, doubts that the laboratory experiment conducted by Pärnamets has much relevance to moral choices in a real-life setting.
She questions whether the participants’ choices in the study were true reflections on their moral reasoning, rather than impulsive judgements made because they were demanded a choice immediately. She states ‘It’s no surprise that when people are asked to respond to such questions in under three seconds, their answers are easily manipulable.’
Photograph: Adam Shaw