Study: The ‘Mona Lisa effect’ doesn’t apply to the Mona Lisa

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BIELEFELD, Germany — If you’ve ever looked at a photograph or painting of a person and gotten the eerie sense that their eyes are following you around the room — no matter what angle you’re viewing the picture from — you’ve experienced what’s commonly known as the “Mona Lisa effect.” But as it turns out, a recent study finds that Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic 16th-century painting itself doesn’t actually exhibit the very phenomenon that it was named after.

Researchers with the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University in Germany debunked the centuries-old legend that’s long been associated with the Mona Lisa.

For their study, the researchers used folding rulers for measurement. Study participants indicated the number they thought her gaze was directed at. (Photo: CITEC/ Bielefeld University)

“The effect itself is undeniable and demonstrable,” says study co-author Dr. Sebastian Loth, of the Social Cognitive Systems research group with CITEC, in a statement. “But with the Mona Lisa, of all paintings, we didn’t get this impression.”

Loth and co-author Dr. Gernot Horstmann first took interest “Mona Lisa Effect” while researching communication with robots and avatars. For their study, the researchers had 24 participants sit in front of computer monitors showing Mona Lisa to assess the direction of her gaze. The researchers put rulers between the participants and the monitors and changed the distance midway through the experiment. The participants then indicated where Mona’s gaze met the ruler.

The researchers used 15 different parts of the painting, starting with her entire head and progressing to only her eyes and nose, to test whether different parts of Mona’s face influenced each viewer’s perception of her gaze. Each image was shown three times in random order. After collecting 2,000 such assessments, the researchers determined that the gaze angle was 15.4 degrees — slightly to her right.

“The participants in our study had the impression that Mona Lisa’s gaze was aimed to their right-hand side,” says Horstman. “Thus, it is clear that the term ‘Mona Lisa Effect’ is nothing but a misnomer. It illustrates the strong desire to be looked at and to be someone else’s center of attention – to be relevant to someone, even if you don’t know the person at all.”

The study is published in the journal i-Perception.