Detecting and responding appropriately to social information in one’s environment is a vital part of everyday social interactions. Here, we report two preregistered experiments that examine how social attention develops across the lifespan, comparing adolescents (10–19 years old), young (20–40 years old) and older (60–80 years old) adults.
In two real-world tasks, participants were immersed in different social interaction situations—a face-to-face conversation and navigating an environment—and their attention to social and non-social content was recorded using eye-tracking glasses. The results revealed that, compared with young adults, adolescents and older adults attended less to social information (that is, the face) during face-to-face conversation, and to people when navigating the real world.
Thus, we provide evidence that real-world social attention undergoes age-related change, and these developmental differences might be a key mechanism that influences theory of mind among adolescents and older adults, with potential implications for predicting successful social interactions in daily life.