April 22, 2005
Sizing Up That ‘Look of Love’
A stranger's gaze may mean a lot, a new study says
HealthDay News -- When a woman walks into a crowded room, what her eyes do in the first few seconds may determine how attractive she is to any man meeting her gaze.
"Our impressions of others are influenced by these simple, nonverbal clues -- and we are not objective in our assessments," explained study author Malia Mason, a graduate psychology student at Dartmouth University.
That could mean that a man rates a woman as less attractive when she averts her gaze because he's feeling rejected, or, on the other hand, that he takes her disinterest in him as reflective of negative personality traits he assumes she must possess.
While the study couldn't answer that question, Mason said, "We do know that gaze is a very potent attentional cue. In fact, there's evidence that when someone looks at us, it's physiologically arousing, and there are these brain regions that get more engaged."
For meetings where sexual interest isn't an issue, gaze can simply make you focus more on the person and what he might be saying or doing. And in situations where romance is a possibility, it makes the mind race and the heart beat a bit faster.
"The clinical psychology literature shows that the No. 1 thing you can do to establish a relationship is simply look at the other person, especially when listening to them," explained Beverly Palmer, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a noted expert in nonverbal communication.
"What researchers have usually studied is just whether you're gazing at a person or not. But the problem is that the interpretation of that gaze -- according to how long the gaze is -- can relate either to interest or hostility," she added.
The Dartmouth study, published in a recent issue of Psychological Science, may help fill in that research gap.
In the study, Mason and her colleagues had 43 college undergrads (24 women, 19 men) sit before a computer screen and view a series of faces of fashion models scanned from magazines. The images were computer-enhanced, however, so that they appeared to slowly turn their gaze toward, or away from, the viewer.
In the first experiment, the researchers asked the participants to rate the personal "likeability" of each of the women pictured.
They found that both male and female viewers rated women who averted their gaze as less likeable than women who turned their attention toward the viewer.
Gender differences emerged in a second experiment, however. In that exercise, the same participants were asked to rate the physical attractiveness of the models on their screens as they turned toward or away from them.
In this experiment -- focusing more on sexual interest -- male participants consistently rated models who averted their gaze as less beautiful, while models who turned their eyes toward them got much higher marks.
"But for female participants, ratings of attractiveness [for the models] wasn't moderated by direction of gaze," Mason said.
The study does have its critics. Dr. Doe Lang, a New York-based psychologist and author of The New Secrets of Charisma, said it's futile to focus on one piece of nonverbal communication to the exclusion of all others.
"There are many, many possible subtleties that aren't attempted at analysis or codification here," she said. "Are the eyebrows raised? Are the shoulders raised? What's the rest of the body doing? Just to have the head turn and the gaze is far too simplistic."
And Palmer said it'd be interesting to know what happens when women view males in a similar context. "Because we know, for instance, that in heterosexual relationships physical attractiveness, as a quality, is rated much more importantly by men than it is by women," she said.
She also agreed that the findings don't say much about why people are judged more harshly when their eyes communicate disinterest.
"You could say 'Oh, she doesn't like me because I'm not good-looking, I'm too short,' etc," Palmer said. This type of reaction is called an internal attribution, with the viewer suspecting that the averted gaze reflects badly on the viewer.
Or he could make an external attribution, which disparages the other person, instead. In this "sour grapes" scenario, the man interprets the woman's averted gaze to mean that "'she is not a person I'd want to get to know, because she's hostile,'" Palmer said.
What is sure is that gaze matters. According to Palmer, the most charming individuals use eye contact to their advantage -- as she found out in a recent face-to-face with former President Bill Clinton.
"He was speaking here in L.A., and I had an opportunity to meet him," she said. "He makes immediate eye contact, and sustains it correctly while he is listening."
According to Palmer, that means that Clinton quickly sets his gaze on you, averting it only occasionally and at proper intervals, because holding a gaze too long can signal hostility.
The result? "He's actually 100 percent more charismatic than he comes across in any kind of media," she said. "You feel like you're the most important thing to him at that particular moment."
For more on the psychology of attraction, check out the University of California, Berkeley.