It is an age-old stereotype: Boyfriend and girlfriend are walking down the street, holding hands and very much in love. Coming toward them is an attractive woman. The girlfriend looks to see where her beau’s eyes may be roaming.
Here’s another scenario: A man is speaking with a co-worker whose blouse is a little revealing. He either makes an effort to keep eye contact or gets caught casually glancing at her cleavage.
Where people look is important—psychologists refer to it as the “look zone.” Recently, researchers investigated differences between the look zones of men and women. Using an apparatus that tracks eye movements 60 times a minute, they were able to measure where and for how long people gazed. In this particular study, they invited participants to look, one at a time, at 72 pictures of heterosexual couples engaged in intercourse. The researchers measured the first place each participant gazed, the duration of their looks, and the probability of their looking at a particular part of the body.
Men, as you might expect, were highly likely to look at female bodies and particularly genitals—but, interestingly, so were women. In fact, women spent as long looking at female bodies as men did, though only marginally longer looking at male bodies (which wasn’t very long in either case). Across both men and women, the female body was the most commanding look zone, occupying 30 percent of the looking. Male bodies, by contrast, were looked at only 7 percent of time.
The one place men looked more than women? Female faces.
Interestingly, the researchers also thought to examine women who were in various stages of their menstrual cycle, as well as those who took oral contraceptives. It turns out that birth-control pills appeared to have an effect on the look zone—women taking oral contraceptives were more likely to look at clothing and background settings, while women who were not were more likely than others to look at male genitals.
To revisit that attractive woman approaching on the sidewalk: There is a good chance both the strolling boyfriend and girlfriend are giving her a long look.
Rupp, H. & Wallen, K. (2007). Sex differences in viewing sexual stimuli: An eye-tracking study in men and women. Hormones and Behavior, 51, 524-533.
Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. His forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.