Social Attention and Social Reinforcement Learning


  • Nina Širec University of Ljubljana



Attention to socially important regions of the face is a key component of daily social interaction and precedes fundamental social skills such as emotion recognition, nonverbal communication and mentalizing. It is also an essential prerequisite to social learning, i.e., when integrating emotional feedback to one’s behavior. Eye contact is a salient social signal and, along with social skills, is often found to be atypical in disorders characterized by social impairments, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) [1]. Furthermore, atypical responses to rewards and deficits in social reinforcement learning are documented in individuals with ASD. [2]


Studies investigating eye gaze on faces often rely on social representations rather than real people, which differ remarkably from real-life social interaction [1]. Furthermore, social reinforcement learning paradigms tend to rely on stimuli that differ on a range of perceptual characteristics [3]. The aim of our project is therefore to develop a novel eye tracking paradigm which uses mobile eye tracking in conjunction with AI face-recognition to allow fixations to the face to be measured during a real-life conversation. Additionally, we have developed a reinforcement association learning task (RALT) using point-light displays (PLD’s) of emotional faces as social feedback.


We will test 60 neurotypical adults in our study, with whom we will conduct a semi-structured interview while recording their eye gaze with a mobile eye tracker. Furthermore, we will collect data on the RALT and the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaire. Levels of autistic traits will be investigated in association to fixation frequency to socially important regions and learning in the social condition of the RALT.


Currently, the project is still in the data collection phase. However, we expect that AQ score will be negatively associated with the frequency of fixations to socially important regions (face, eyes, mouth) as well as with reduced social learning.


[1] M. Chita-Tegmark, “Social attention in ASD: A review and meta-analysis of eye-tracking studies,” Research in Developmental Disabilities, vol. 48, pp. 79–93, 2016, doi: 10.1016/j.ridd.2015.10.011.

[2] M. Schuetze, C. Rohr, D. Dewey, A. McCrimmon and S. Bray, "Reinforcement Learning in Autism Spectrum Disorder", Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, 2017. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02035.

[3] R. Hurlemann et al., “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans,” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 30, no. 14, pp. 4999–5007, 2010, doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5538-09.2010.