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Tracking developmental differences in real-world social attention across adolescence, young adulthood and older adulthood

Abstract

Detecting and responding appropriately to social information in one’s environment is a vital part of everyday social interactions. Here, we report two preregistered experiments that examine how social attention develops across the lifespan, comparing adolescents (10–19 years old), young (20–40 years old) and older (60–80 years old) adults. In two real-world tasks, participants were immersed in different social interaction situations—a face-to-face conversation and navigating an environment—and their attention to social and non-social content was recorded using eye-tracking glasses. The results revealed that, compared with young adults, adolescents and older adults attended less to social information (that is, the face) during face-to-face conversation, and to people when navigating the real world. Thus, we provide evidence that real-world social attention undergoes age-related change, and these developmental differences might be a key mechanism that influences theory of mind among adolescents and older adults, with potential implications for predicting successful social interactions in daily life.

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Fig. 1: The proportion of time spent fixating on each AOI in each condition and age group in the face-to-face conversation task.
Fig. 2: The proportion of time spent fixating on each AOI in each age group in the navigation task.
Fig. 3: The proportion of time spent fixating on people in each age group in the navigation task, controlling for the time that people were visible in the environment.

Data availability

Data are available at the OSF (https://osf.io/qwz8m, https://osf.io/ktc8j).

Code availability

Data analysis was conducted using R (v.3.6.1). Code are available at the OSF (https://osf.io/qwz8m, https://osf.io/ktc8j).

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Acknowledgements

This work was carried out with the support of a European Research Council grant to H.J.F. (CogSoCoAGE; 636458). The preregistration, datasets and code supporting this Article are available at the Open Science Framework (https://osf.io/fnd8h/). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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M.D.L. contributed to study design, data collection, data analysis and interpretation, and drafting and revising the manuscript. R.F. contributed to data collection and data coding. M.C.F. contributed to data collection and data coding. A.S. contributed to data collection and data coding. E.E.F.B. contributed to drafting and revising the manuscript. C.W.-H. contributed to data collection; H.J.F. conceived of the study, designed the study, data analysis and interpretation, and led on drafting and revising the manuscript. All of the authors gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Heather J. Ferguson.

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De Lillo, M., Foley, R., Fysh, M.C. et al. Tracking developmental differences in real-world social attention across adolescence, young adulthood and older adulthood. Nat Hum Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01113-9

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