Scientists based at the University of Padova in Italy used a phenomenon known as “gaze cueing” – whereby we pay attention to our peers by following their gaze and looking in the same direction as them – to investigate whether undergraduate students paid more or less attention to people they perceived to have a high status.
They discovered that the students paid more attention to faces when they were told that the person they were looking at was a high achiever, such as ‘Dean of a Faculty of Architecture’ or ‘Graduated with Honours in Physics’. When they were told that the person had what they would perceive as a lower status, they looked in the same direction as the person less quickly and less accurately.
The results seem to suggest that the way we react to people visually doesn’t just rely on physical clues and, in fact, just reading about an individual’s high status will cause us to pay more attention to them. As the authors state, “it implies that we rapidly encode the relative social status of the individuals populating our environment and we shape our social attention processes accordingly."