The science of eye-catching gazes?

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© Mario Castello/Corbis

How quickly a straight woman can determine whether that guy across the bar is trying to catch her eye — or just trying to read the ESPN ticker on the TV above her head — may depend on how typically masculine his facial features are, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science. And, the research from a team of investigators at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen and Stirling University suggests, the opposite may be true as well: how quickly a straight man can determine whether a woman is soliciting his gaze — or merely trying to find the sign for the bathroom — may depend on how feminine her features are.

For the study, researchers asked 20 heterosexual men and women in their early 20s to look at images of men’s and women’s faces where the eyes were either looking right toward them, or off to one side. To narrow the focus specifically to facial characteristics, the researchers cropped the photos so that no hairstyles were shown, and edited the images to emphasize or downplay gender-specific attributes. (For example, images that emphasized typically feminine characteristics portrayed women with higher arching eyebrows and heart shaped mouths, while those emphasizing masculine attributes showed faces with more broad, square chins.)

In a series of trials, participants were asked to focus on the center of a blank screen. When an image popped up, they had to press a button as quickly as possible indicating whether the gaze was directed at them, or off to one side. They found that participants were consistently faster at identifying the gaze of someone from the opposite sex who had more noticeable gender-specific features than they were at tracking the gaze of same sex photos or faces with more androgynous features. The study authors write:

“Given that exaggerated sex-typical facial cues are correlated with indices of mate quality, our findings suggest that cues to the quality of potential mates influence gaze categorization.”

Or, in other words, previous research has suggested that, evolutionarily speaking, women with more feminine features and men with more masculine characteristics generally made healthier pairs — and therefore healthier, and more robust, offspring. So, being able to quickly determine whether that good-looking guy or lady is trying to catch your eye — and maybe spark a romance — may have had some evolutionary benefit.

As Benedict Jones, one of the study’s authors, explained in a statement about the findings:

“There’s likely to be quite a big advantage to detecting when a particularly good potential mate’s looking at you… If I’m in a bar and there’s a pretty woman looking at me — if I wasn’t married — I would want to catch her eye before someone else did.”