Stuck on you: face-to-face arousal and gaze aversion in Williams syndrome

Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Deborah Riby, Lesley Calderwood, Leanne Ainsworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Introduction: During face-to-face questioning typically developing children and adults use gaze aversion (GA), away from their questioner, when thinking. GA increases with question difficulty and improves the accuracy of responses. We investigate whether individuals with Williams syndrome (WS), associated with hyper-sociability and atypical face gaze, use GA to manage cognitive load and whether physiological arousal is associated with looking at faces.
Methods: Two studies were conducted by: i) Recording changes in the participants’ skin conductance levels whilst manipulating task difficulty and gaze direction and ii) Calculating the amount of GA away from the experimenters’ face whilst answering questions of varying difficulty.
Results: In study 1, whilst WS was associated with general hypo-arousal, face arousal effects were found for both Williams syndrome and typically developing participants. In study 2, participants with WS showed prolonged face gaze under high task demands, however question difficulty did increase GA.
Conclusions: Looking at faces is demanding, even for individuals with WS. Decreased physiological arousal may allow individuals with WS hold face gaze for prolonged periods of time, but looking at faces does increase baseline arousal level. The results are discussed in terms of social skills training and teaching methods appropriate for WS.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)510-523
JournalCognitive Neuropsychiatry
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Arousal
  • Eye contact
  • Gaze
  • Williams syndrome


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