But what exactly do people tend to look at while they’re making these rapid assessments? Turns out it depends on whether they’re looking at the person as a potential romantic partner or a platonic friend — at least according to a new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Researchers at Wellesley and the University of Kansas tracked the eye movements of 105 heterosexual undergraduate students while they looked at photos of men and women, and answered questions about whether they were interested in possibly dating the strangers or becoming friends with them.
The researchers found that men and women looked at different areas of the body, depending on what type of relationship they were potentially interested in.
“We found some gender differences across the board that apply to both friendship and romance, and some differences in which body regions people look at for friends versus dating,” one of the authors of the study — Angela J. Bahns, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Wellesley College — tells Yahoo Beauty.
When making a judgment about a potential friend, men and women looked at the same areas — namely, they looked at a person’s legs and feet more, according to Bahns. “If you’re looking at legs and feet, you’re especially unlikely to be making a judgment of dating potential,” she says. “Those cues [looking at feet] are uninformative for judging romantic potential. They are not sizing you up for romance.”
But when men are potentially interested in a romantic partner, the researchers found that they’re more likely to focus on a woman’s torso, while women tend to focus on the man’s face. “Men were more likely to look at the waist and hips, which lines up with a lot of evolutionary theories about sizing up reproductive fitness,” notes Bahns. “Women are more likely to look at the head and face. We think that’s probably about facial symmetry — cues for facial fitness and health. They are ways people search for meaningful information from social cues.”
Bahns adds that what parts of strangers’ bodies people look at “is directly influenced by their relational goal.”
The researchers weren’t surprised that men tended to focus on women’s waist and hip region, while women generally targeted men’s faces, but there was one unexpected finding: “We actually looked at people’s answers in how interested they were in being friends with the person and dating them and how that matched up with their looking at them [via eye-tracking technology],” says Bahns. “For the most part, they matched up. But there was one exception — when men looked at faces for a long time, they were actually less interested in a person.”
Explains Bahns: “It may be that men are looking at faces with a critical gaze, and that looking for a long time could actually be a bad indicator of interest — that something seems off to them and they’re trying to figure it out. It’s a little unsettling.”
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