Pfeiffer, Ulrich (2013). From Participation to Motivation: Investigating the Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Gaze-Based Social Interactions. PhD thesis, Universität zu Köln.

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The success of the human species has been attributed to our ability to navigate the social world. Surprisingly, empirical research on social interaction has largely focused on tasks in which participants are passive observers and evaluators of static social stimuli while being detached from the actual interaction. This has caused a somewhat ironic situation in which social cognition is examined in the absence of dynamic social interactions (i.e. offline) in what has been termed ‘isolation paradigms’. Although this approach has generated vital insights into human social cognition, recent claims emphasized that the active engagement with others in interaction (i.e. online) plays a particular role in understanding other minds and might underlie the development of our ability to think about others, rather than the other way round. This thesis strives for an understanding of the cognitive mechanisms and neural processes involved in online social interaction by following a methodological as well as an empirical goal. First, an interactive eye-tracking setup was developed which allowed participants to engage in gaze-based interactions with virtual agents in real-time. Gaze was chosen for the operationalization of social interactions due to its key role in non-verbal communication and its easy accessibility (study 1). Subsequently, this setup was used to scrutinize the dynamic parameters of social gaze and to evaluate the perception of other person’s gaze behavior as mediated by virtual characters (study 2). This was a prerequisite for the empirical objective of this thesis: the construction of a realistic, gaze-based interaction paradigm allowing the investigation of the factors contributing to our perception of an interaction as social and the underlying neural mechanisms. This paradigm – a ‘non-verbal Turing test’ – required participants to distinguish human and computer interaction partners based on a virtual agent’s gaze behavior. The experience of social interaction was therein not defined a priori, but emerged based on the interaction dynamics. This allowed for an unconstrained assessment of participants’ subjective experience of being engaged in a social interaction (study 3). These developments finally permitted addressing the neural basis of the motivation to engage in social interactions and their rewarding nature in a combined eye-tracking and fMRI experiment (study 4). Prior to the discussion of these studies, an introduction is given into the concepts of offline and online interaction, into social gaze as a means to investigate online interaction, and into the neural mechanisms underlying our understanding of others.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD thesis)
CreatorsEmailORCIDORCID Put Code
Pfeiffer, Ulrichuli.pfeiffer@gmail.comUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
URN: urn:nbn:de:hbz:38-51608
Date: 7 June 2013
Language: English
Faculty: Faculty of Human Sciences
Divisions: Faculty of Human Sciences > Department Psychologie
Subjects: Psychology
Life sciences
Uncontrolled Keywords:
social interaction; gaze; joint attention; enactive social cognition; mentalizing; reward system; eye-tracking; fMRIEnglish
Date of oral exam: 8 May 2013
NameAcademic Title
Bente, GaryProf. Dr.
Vogeley, KaiProf. Dr. Dr.
Refereed: Yes


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