Go for the Eyes, Not the Face: How Dungeons & Dragons Helped Science

That "They had eyes on their breasts" Saturday Night Live Skit broke this story years ago...

by on 31st Oct, 2012

For many years, scientists have known that people tend to look where other people are looking. They also tend to look at the face of someone before looking elsewhere. The discussion was split among scientsts. Half believed that people just wanted to look at the face of someone they met for the first time in order to figure out things about them. The other half believed that the goal of looking at the face was actually to look at that person's eyes so that they could see where they were looking. 

Enter Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. 

Kingstone's son, Julian, heard about his dad's research at dinner one night. His father believed that people were actually looking at people's eyes and not just their faces. Julian, who was interested in Dungeons and Dragons, mentioned to his father that the Monster Manual contained dozens of pictures of faces and various monsters that had eyes elsewhere on their bodies. 

After this suggestion, a study was born. Test subjects were instructued to look at the bottom corner of a screen and press a button. Once the button was pressed, a monster from the monster manual would appear on screen and the subjects were instructed to just look at it - to let their eyes do as they wanted without thinking about it. 

Out of the 22 test volunteers were done, Kingstone found that most of the subjects would look at the center of the screen and then directly up if the picture was of a humanoid. If the picture was of a monster like a beholder with eyes at the ends of the stalks, the test subjects would look at the center of the screen then off toward the eyes. 

Julian Levy, Kingstone's son, prepared the test and gathered the events while his father and a post doc wrote the results. So, at age 14 he has managed to get a paper published in a prestigous Royal Society journal. 

The final results of this study mostly signify, "that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers" (Source here along with link to actual paper). Kingstone adds that this may also explain why people with Austism avoid or fail to make eye contact.

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