Do We Look Down When Thinking About Ourselves?

Previous research has demonstrated abstract concepts associated with spatial location (e.g., God in the Heavens) could direct visual attention upward or downward, because thinking about the abstract concepts activates the corresponding vertical perceptual symbols. For self-concept, there are similar metaphors (e.g., “I am above others”).

However, whether thinking about the self can induce visual attention orientation is still unknown. Now, a study by Shenzhen University’s Yi Liu and colleagues, has tested whether self-reflection can direct visual attention.

Individuals often display the tendency of self-enhancement in social comparison, which reminds the individual of the higher position one possesses relative to others within the social environment.

As the individual is the agent of the attention orientation, and high status tends to make an individual look down upon others to obtain a sense of pride, it was hypothesized that thinking about the self would lead to a downward attention orientation. Using reflection of personality traits and a target discrimination task, Study 1 found that, after self-reflection, visual attention was directed downward.

Self Reflection vs. Friend Reflection

Similar effects were also found after friend-reflection, with the level of downward attention being correlated with the likability rating scores of the friend. Thus, in Study 2, a disliked other was used as a control and the positive self-view was measured with above-average judgment task.

The researchers found downward attention orientation after self-reflection, but not after reflection upon the disliked other. Moreover, the attentional bias after self-reflection was correlated with above-average self-view.

Illustration of experimental procedure

Illustration of experimental procedure of the attention orientation task.
Credit: Liu, Tong and Li. CC-BY

The findings provide the first evidence that thinking about the self could direct visual-spatial attention downward, and suggest that this effect is probably derived from a positive self-view within the social context.

“Look down and see the beggars at your feet, look down and show some mercy if you can.” -From Les Miserables

Nobles in the upper class look down with pride to see others at the bottom of the heap, while those of the underclass, look up to dignitaries, and show their respect. “Up” and “down” are not only used for concrete spatial location, but also as metaphors for abstract concepts, such as attitudes toward others (e.g., “look up to the leader” and “look down upon the beggar”).

These kinds of metaphors have also been used to describe the higher position one possesses relative to others within the social hierarchy.

For example, “I am at the top of the class” or “I am above average people.”

The belief that we are above average is a robust cognitive bias that helps to maintain self-esteem (Alicke, 1985; Taylor and Brown, 1988; Chambers and Windschitl, 2004; Beer and Hughes, 2010). In the current study, the focus was on the spatial metaphor of the superiority of the self, and demonstrating its influence on visual attention.

Psychological And Social Context

Psychological researchers have been interested in the influence of abstract concepts on visual attention. These abstract concepts include ones associated with vertical spatial information, such as God and devil.

Individuals responded faster to target stimuli presented at compatible locations, such as God is up and devil is down (Meier et al., 2007; Chasteen et al., 2010). Meier and Robinson (2004) also demonstrated that positive/negative words (e.g., hero/liar) were evaluated faster when they appeared at the up/down position of the screen.

Using pictorial stimuli, Schubert (2005) showed that power was aligned to a vertical schema, in which a powerful agent (e.g., master) is on top of a powerless one (e.g., servant). These findings demonstrate that abstract concepts with implicit spatial information could trigger automatic visuospatial attention orientation toward locations compatible with their meanings.

In the social context, to maintain self-esteem, people also tend to show cognitive bias that place themselves as better or “above” average people (Alicke, 1985; Taylor and Brown, 1988; Chambers and Windschitl, 2004; Beer and Hughes, 2010). This positive bias of the self suggests an association between the self-concept and an above-average position within the social context.

However, whether thinking about self could show similar attention orientation effects is still unknown.

Previous research has demonstrated that self-reflection on personality traits resulted in self-bias in memory, which is called “self-reference effect.” That is, compared with other-related trait adjectives, self-related traits were better remembered, suggesting that self functions as a superordinate schema deeply involved in memory (Rogers et al., 1977; Klein and Kihlstrom, 1986).

Investigating whether self-reflection could result in self-bias on visuospatial attention is crucial for understanding self-reflection. Attention orientation effect provides a good way to investigate this issue.

The work was supported by the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation, Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province, and Shenzhen Peacock Plan.

Yi Liu, Yu Tong, and Hong Li
Self-reflection Orients Visual Attention Downward
Front. Psychol., 05 September 2017 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01506

© 2017 Liu, Tong and Li. Republished via Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).