Previous research suggested a role of gaze in preference formation, not merely as an expression of preference, but also as a causal influence. According to the gaze cascade hypothesis, the longer subjects look at an item, the more likely they are to develop a preference for it. However, to date the connection between viewing and liking has been investigated predominately with self-paced viewing conditions in which the subjects were required to select certain items from simultaneously presented stimuli on the basis of perceived visual attractiveness. Such conditions might promote a default, but non-mandatory connection between viewing and liking. To explore whether the connection is separable, we examined the evaluative processing of single naturalistic food images in a 2 × 2 design, conducted completely within subjects, in which we varied both the type of exposure (self-paced versus time-controlled) and the type of evaluation (non-exclusive versus exclusive). In the self-paced exclusive evaluation, longer viewing was associated with a higher likelihood of a positive evaluation. However, in the self-paced non-exclusive evaluation, the trend reversed such that longer viewing durations were associated with lesser ratings. Furthermore, in the time-controlled tasks, both with non-exclusive and exclusive evaluation, there was no significant relationship between the viewing duration and the evaluation. The overall pattern of results was consistent for viewing times measured in terms of exposure duration (i.e., the duration of stimulus presentation on the screen) and in terms of actual gaze duration (i.e., the amount of time the subject effectively gazed at the stimulus on the screen). The data indicated that viewing does not intrinsically lead to a higher evaluation when evaluating single food images; instead, the relationship between viewing duration and evaluation depends on the type of task. We suggest that self-determination of exposure duration may be a prerequisite for any influence from viewing time on evaluative processing, regardless of whether the influence is facilitative. Moreover, the purported facilitative link between viewing and liking appears to be limited to exclusive evaluation, when only a restricted number of items can be included in a chosen set.
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