Face detection in 2- to 6-month-old infants is influenced by gaze direction and species

Elizabeth A. Simpson, Sarah E. Maylott, Samantha G. Mitsven, Guangyu Zeng, Krisztina V. Jakobsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Humans detect faces efficiently from a young age. Face detection is critical for infants to identify and learn from relevant social stimuli in their environments. Faces with eye contact are an especially salient stimulus, and attention to the eyes in infancy is linked to the emergence of later sociality. Despite the importance of both of these early social skills—attending to faces and attending to the eyes—surprisingly little is known about how they interact. We used eye tracking to explore whether eye contact influences infants' face detection. Longitudinally, we examined 2-, 4-, and 6-month-olds' (N = 65) visual scanning of complex image arrays with human and animal faces varying in eye contact and head orientation. Across all ages, infants displayed superior detection of faces with eye contact; however, this effect varied as a function of species and head orientation. Infants were more attentive to human than animal faces and were more sensitive to eye and head orientation for human faces compared to animal faces. Unexpectedly, human faces with both averted heads and eyes received the most attention. This pattern may reflect the early emergence of gaze following—the ability to look where another individual looks—which begins to develop around this age. Infants may be especially interested in averted gaze faces, providing early scaffolding for joint attention. This study represents the first investigation to document infants' attention patterns to faces systematically varying in their attentional states. Together, these findings suggest that infants develop early, specialized functional conspecific face detection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12902
JournalDevelopmental science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • attention capture
  • attention holding
  • mutual gaze
  • own-species bias
  • social behavior
  • visual attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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