Social attention is the focus of cognitive processes on an individual or group in a mixed setting. In a simple example, a person at a cocktail party stopping to have a conversation is exhibiting social attention. This plays an important role in human interaction. People with cognitive and neurological problems may not be able to engage in complex social tasks, or could have difficulty with sustained attention tasks like listening to a teacher throughout an hour long class.
Gaze is one of the most important elements of social attention. The refocusing of the gaze on an object or person of interest activates a complex neural network. Body language can also be involved; the speaker at the cocktail party, for instance, may orient the head and body towards the conversation partner, indicating interest and a desire to continue the conversation. Other senses like hearing can activate to process information once the brain directs attention to a specific subject.
This is not just seen in real-world environments where people interact physically. A form of social attention can be seen in virtual spaces as well in the form of hits on a website, indicating interest from members of the public, or comments and ratings on content. These more abstract forms can still involve some of the same cognitive processes as people decide where they want to focus their attention and how sustained it should be. Social cues like avatars to identify speakers also help people interact in virtual spaces.
Humans respond to attention as well as directing it. People who feel they are not subjects of attention may experience distress or irritation, as for example when a lecturer gets frustrated with gossiping students at the back of a classroom. Attention is also a form of cognitive reward that may encourage people to repeat behaviors in the future to obtain similar rewards. A dancer expects attention from the audience during a performance, not just applause at the end, and is more likely to continue pursuing dance when audiences engage and participate.
Some disabilities that impact cognition can affect social attention. People with these disabilities may have difficulty with tasks like focusing their gaze on targets or using body language that indicates they are interested. It can also be challenging to maintain focus for extended periods of time. People may fidget, look away, or engage in other tasks as their minds drift. Studies on social attention suggest that early intervention can help people develop cognitive skills to direct and sustain attention.