What was the name of your second-grade teacher?
Adults are not alone in their tendency to avert the eyes and look away when trying to answer a difficult question, British psychologists reported yesterday.
Children do the same. And researchers cautioned teachers and parents not to automatically assume that a child is daydreaming or inattentive if he ignores the common expectation: “Look at me when I m talking to you.”
Dr. Gweneth Doherty-Sneddon of the University of Sterling said in an interview that psychologists have long understood why adults resort to “gaze aversion.” It involves closing the eyes, looking up, shifting the gaze away from another person s face, or staring into the blue.
She heads a research team that studies the nonverbal signals that children use to communicate. They reported in this month s edition of The Psychologist, the journal of the British Psychological Society.
Adults engage in gaze aversion when remembering information, trying to think of an answer to a question, or planning what to say when speaking, she said in an interview.
Far from a mannerism, gaze aversion actually is a way to briefly turn off the flow of visual data, so the brain can concentrate on calling up information from memory storage areas.
“We avert our gaze at critical points within a task or interaction to avoid processing of unnecessary, distracting, or arousing visual clues from our environment,” she explained. “There is some evidence that averting your gaze actually improves the accuracy of response to questions.”
Psychologists, however, knew little about gaze aversion in children. Dr. Doherty-Sneddon s findings indicate that children also look away when asked a tough question because it helps them think of the answer.
In addition, she found that children tend to look away from the teacher most often when they are just about to understand something. Looking away means kids are in what she described as “a ready-to-learn” state.
“Teachers have to be aware of the sorts of messages we gain from attending to children s nonverbal behaviors,” Dr. Doherty-Sneddon said.
The research indicates, for instance, that a child who looks away when asked a question may have enough knowledge to answer the question and is trying to recall it. A child who maintains eye contact with the questioner, in contrast, probably has given up, she said, or he doesn t have the information and is seeking more help from the questioner.
“In some cases, it may, indeed, indicate being very attentive,” Dr. Alan Lesgold, professor and dean of education at the University of Pittsburgh, said of gaze aversion. He noted, however, that gaze aversion may occur for other reasons.
“This issue of how to interpret looking away is important partly because there are cultural differences with regard to gaze,” added Dr. Janet Schofield, a Pitt psychologist. “In some Hispanic groups it is not considered respectful for a child to engage in direct eye contact with an authority figure like a teacher.”
Dr. Doherty-Sneddon acknowledged that children may look away when they are bored or not paying attention. But she said they broadcast clues that parents and teachers can detect.
Children who are looking away and concentrating, for instance, blink their eyes at a reduced rate. Those who are inattentive usually blink faster and fidget.