Eye-Gaze and Attraction

Eye-tracking men and women assessing potential partners and friends

Dr. Robert Burriss
Oct 9, 2017 · 6 min read
The “distracted boyfriend” stock photo. If this is the first time you have seen this image, you must be a freshly thawed Captain America. Antonio Guillem

For the last couple of months, it has been impossible to use social media without encountering a certain stock image. This photograph of a young man ogling a passing woman, oblivious that his girlfriend has caught him in the act, has spawned hundreds of witty (and thousands of not-so-witty) memes.

In the event that you’re reading this in the distant future (or don’t spend every moment of your free time on Reddit), the idea is to superimpose text over each of the three characters to reference a situation where someone is distracted by something they really shouldn’t be. One very literal interpretation sees Henry VIII being distracted from Catherine of Aragon by Anne Boleyn (or from Anne Boleyn by Jane Seymour). In my personal favorite, Donald Trump ignores medical advice to stare directly at the solar eclipse.

The first person to make a meme too meta is the winner. And the loser.

The “distracted boyfriend” image, as it has come to be known, has proven so versatile perhaps because it is such a recognizable situation: a man assessing a woman’s attractiveness by inappropriately staring at her.

But what does science have to say about eye gaze and attraction? Where do men — and women — look when evaluating someone for a relationship, or a friendship? And can we tell an attractive from an unattractive face, even after the briefest of brief glimpses?

My Face is Up Here

Many women will be familiar with this situation: you’re chatting with a man when you notice that his eyes have drifted southwards, and the only way to regain his attention is to remind him “my face is up here”.

But is it true that men are more interested in a woman’s body than her face, and where do women look when they’re checking out a man?

Omri Gillath, a psychologist at the University of Kansas, has run an eye-tracking study to find out. He fitted around 100 male and female volunteers with a device that records where their eyes are directed. Then he showed the volunteers a series of full body photographs of young men and women. Afterwards, he asked the volunteers (all of whom were straight) to rate the attractiveness of the opposite-sex models. He also had the volunteers judge whether the models would make good friends.

When judging people for friendship-suitability, our eyes are first drawn to their feet and legs. Jimmy Huang/Flickr

Gillath found that the volunteers’ first glance at a person fell on different parts of the body depending on the type of judgment. When judging attractiveness, the volunteers looked first at the head, chest, or waist; when judging for friendship, the volunteers were more likely to look at the legs and feet first.

Gillath also recorded the amount of time the volunteers looked at the different parts of the body. He found that both men and women gazed longer at the face when judging for a relationship, and longer at the legs and feet when judging for a friendship.

This doesn’t imply that feet or legs are especially important in a friend (unless you expect your friends to give you piggy-backs everywhere), but rather that we scan more of the whole body when judging for a friend: less time looking at the upper body means more time available for the lower body.

A sex difference in where the volunteers looked was especially evident for the upper body. When looking at men, women split their attention between the face and the upper body relatively equally. When judging for a mate, they looked a bit more at the face; when judging for a friend, they looked a little more at the upper body. I suppose this makes sense: if you need a friend to help you move apartments, good upper body strength is more useful then a chiseled jaw!

The top row (a) shows where men spend most time looking when judging women as a friend or a mate. The bottom row (b) shows how women gaze at men when making the same judgments. Image from Gillath et al. (in press).

However, men were consistent with the cliche and spent a disproportionate amount of time ogling women’s chests. They looked at faces a lot too, but not as much as chests. Hips were about as distracting for men as faces were, perhaps because research has shown that waist-to-hip ratio is a good indicator of a woman’s fertility.

Gillath asked his volunteers if they were in a relationship, and found that single people looked longer at the body than the face compared to those with partners. The effect was strongest when evaluating the models as mates rather than friends.

Still, one thing I wonder about this research is whether people are genuinely able to judge another person as friendship or as relationship material. Friendships can grow into relationships (and, perhaps more rarely, relationships can become friendships). When we meet a new person, we might decide that we like them or we don’t, that we wish to spend time with them or avoid them, but do we really categorize new acquaintances as potential friends or partners at first glance? I’m not so sure, and I think the fact that men check out women’s breasts and hips more than their faces even when supposedly judging for a friendship doesn’t speak in favor of men’s ability to compartmentalize these judgments.

Leopard or Looker?

In a second study published this month, Koyo Nakamura of Waseda University in Tokyo investigated the limits of our attraction-detecting visual abilities. Does attractiveness matter when we glimpse a face for only a fraction of a second?

Nakamura showed his volunteers a sequence of images of faces, including animal faces and the faces of humans varying in attractiveness. Barry Davis/Flickr, Nic Borrow/Flickr, Alepouda/Flickr

Nakamura showed his research volunteers slideshows of images. The slideshows included photographs of the faces of various animals: dogs, leopards, gorillas, goats, and so on.

Mixed in among the animals was the face of a woman, drawn from a pool of faces pre-rated for attractiveness. Sometimes the face was attractive, with an average rating of 7 out of 10; sometimes it was of average attractiveness, with an rating of 5; and the rest of the time the face was less attractive, with an rating of 4.

The slideshows were on screen for a very short time. Sixteen animal and human faces were presented for only 120 ms each: just over a tenth of a second. Each slideshow lasted less than two seconds.

After the slideshow was over, the volunteers’ task was to look over a set of four women’s faces that included the face they had glimpsed in the slideshow. All they had to do was pick out that face. As you can appreciate, this was no small task: they had seen the face so briefly that they were unable to consciously take it in.

Nakamura found that the volunteers were more accurate when the target face was attractive than when it was average or unattractive. For average or unattractive targets, the volunteers were correct about 50% of the time; for attractive targets, their accuracy was about 60%.

Nakamura thinks this is because the human visual system is adapted to recognize attractive faces, even when we catch such a brief glimpse of them that our conscious mind has no idea what we’ve seen.

The distracted boyfriend didn’t need to ogle the passing woman in such a blatant fashion that his girlfriend was bound to notice. With a glance of one tenth of a second, his caveman brain would have decided if she was hot or not.

Gillath, O., Bahns, A. J., & Burghart, H. A. (in press). Eye movements when looking at potential friends and romantic partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508–017–1022–5

Nakamura, K., Arai, S., & Kawabata, H. (in press). Prioritized identification of attractive and romantic partner faces in rapid serial visual presentation. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508–017–1027–0

For an audio version of this story, see the 26 September 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Support Rob at patreon.com/psychology and receive bonus podcasts and blogs.

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