Vision is not a passive process (like a camera capturing the visual surroundings) but rather an active process in which our high-resolution center of gaze is shifted approximately 3 times per second. This is classically termed the “active-vision loop”, allowing for better sampling of the most interesting aspects in the visual scene.
As we all know from our daily experience, people often differ in the way they perceive the world around them. Indeed, when two observers view the same picture, they typically study the image following different scan paths. I posit that these reliable individual differences are of great interest. They may reflect differences between observers in their visual processing skills (e.g. faster processing leads to shorter fixations and a higher rate of saccades). Alternatively, the differences may reflect the variation in high-level factors between people (interest in certain visual categories may differ between subjects; e.g. when observing a conflictual social scene one may focus on the perceived victim side while another may pay greater attention to the perceived perpetrator). The classic “active vision loop” framework cannot explain such individual differences.
The importance of this research derives not only from the need to modify an influential theoretical framework and understand the almost uncharted territory of individual differences in gaze behavior. It also stems from the considerable influence of gaze behavior on ones attitudes and behavior. Our gaze behavior characteristics determine the visual input that enters our brain and, in turn, our memories, cognition and maybe even traits and attitudes. Thus, consistent differences in gaze behavior may not only reflect our traits but also lead to consistent differences in how we perceive and understand the world. Hence, the reciprocal influence between gaze behavior and individual traits may act as a positive feedback loop that enhances differences between individuals and determines who we are.