The relationship you have with someone determines a lot of things, including where you look at them the most.
In a study led by Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the University of Kansas, people were found to direct their eyesight to different parts of another person’s body, depending on their relationship with the person. The study observed the eye movements of 105 heterosexual undergraduate students.
The students viewed photos of men and women who were identified as either a potential mate or a potential friend. Participants then responded to questions about whether they had a romantic interest or a friendly interest in the person.
If the participant was interested in a romantic relationship, eye movements frequently gravitated toward the head and chest, while eye movements looked at the legs and feet for potential friends. Angela Bahns, study co-author and an assistant professor of Psychology at Wellesley, said the study reveals how people are motivated while developing relationships.
“Research on attraction tends to assume there is a fixed set of characteristics that makes a person desirable,” she said in a press release. “This new study shows that what people look for in a prospective relationship partner depends on their relational goals. The same person who makes a highly desirable friend may not make a good mate.”
Single participants looked at photos longer and more frequently than those already in relationships, especially when assessing the photos for potential romantic interests. For both heterosexual male and female participants, more time was spent looking at the head or chest of a person of the opposite sex when viewing them as potential mates instead of friends.
Looking at someone’s head was associated with a greater interest in friendship for women, but looking at someone’s head was also linked to a less interest in friendship for women. Bahn said men and women both looked at someone’s legs and feet more often when they were assessing a potential friend.
“However, men generally looked most at the chest and waist-hip region, regardless of whether they were judging friendship or dating potential,” Bahns said. “Women looked most at the chest and head. And men were more likely to look at a person’s legs.”
The study suggests that men look at faces with a critical view, since male participants who looked at the head the longest and more frequently weren’t as interested in a potential friend. The single female participants looked longer and more often at potential romantic partners than those already in relationships.
Overall, the legs and feet were the least observed parts of the body. When participants looked at the center of someone’s body, including their legs, waist, hips or chest, there were indications for a greater interest in both friendship and romance.
“These findings show that relational goals and gender may affect the way people scan their environment and search for relevant information in line with their goals,” the study authors wrote.