Eye Movements When Looking at Potential Friends and Romantic Partners

Abstract

Eye movements of 105 heterosexual undergraduate students (36 males) were monitored while viewing photographs of men and women identified as a potential mate or a potential friend. Results showed that people looked at the head and chest more when assessing potential mates and looked at the legs and feet more when assessing potential friends. Single people looked at the photographs longer and more frequently than coupled people, especially when evaluating potential mates. In addition, eye gaze was a valid indicator of relationship interest. For women, looking at the head corresponded to greater interest in friendship, whereas for men looking at the head corresponded to less interest in friendship. 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.

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Fig. 1
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Fig. 3

Notes

  1. 1.

    Male (M = 3.84, SD = 0.12) and female (M = 3.89, SD = 0.14) images did not differ on attractiveness, t(18) = 0.85, p = .41. Images presented as potential friends (M = 3.88, SD = 0.14) and potential mates (M = 3.86, SD = 0.13) did not differ on attractiveness, t(18) = 0.30, p = .77.

  2. 2.

    Exploratory analyses looked for possible effects of target image gender in the friendship block. Both male and female subjects were more likely to look at the legs of women compared to men, and female subjects but not male subjects were more likely to look at the waist–hip region of women compared to men.

  3. 3.

    Exploratory analyses included an indicator variable for whether pictures were repeated or new. There were some significant effects; in each case, participants looked more at the new pictures than the repeated pictures. Importantly, the effects of relational goal as reported in Table 1 remain significant when controlling for the repeated/new covariate with one exception—the effect of relational goal on looking at legs changes from significant to marginally significant for the fixation count analysis and from significant to nonsignificant for the fixation duration analysis.

  4. 4.

    Item-specific ICCs from the null models with the more complex covariance structure are available in the online supplementary material; however, the usual interpretation of ICC is untenable in this special case. For a more useful point of reference, overall ICCs from the null models with a single residual variance estimate for fixation count and fixation duration, respectively are: head (.31, .29), chest (.34, .20), waist–hip (.32, .19), legs (.27, .08), feet (.18, .09).

  5. 5.

    Image order was included as a covariate because exploratory analyses determined that participants tended to spend more time looking at the first image compared to subsequent images, perhaps to familiarize themselves with the task since there were no practice trials. Block order was also tested as a covariate, but in the interest of parsimony it was not retained in the final model. There were some significant effects; in each case, participants looked at the images more when the friend block was presented first. Importantly, all effects of relational goal remain significant when controlling for block order.

  6. 6.

    Choice of color scale used in the data visualizations was guided by the goal of accentuating the differences in looking patterns identified by the MLM analysis. Readers should refer to the significance tests presented in Table 1 to evaluate whether relational goal reliably influenced eye gaze for a given body region.

  7. 7.

    Item-specific ICCs from the null model with the more complex covariance structure are available in the online supplementary material; however, the usual interpretation of ICC is untenable in this special case. For a more useful point of reference, the overall ICC from the null model with a single residual variance estimate is .26.

  8. 8.

    The same series of multilevel models was conducted using fixation duration data; these analyses replicated the findings from the models using fixation counts in every way. Details are available in the online supplementary material.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Melanie Canterberry and Austen McGuire for assisting with the eye-tracking equipment and software, and we thank Megan Chen for creating the data visualizations displayed in Figures 2 and 3.

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Correspondence to Omri Gillath.

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Gillath, O., Bahns, A.J. & Burghart, H.A. Eye Movements When Looking at Potential Friends and Romantic Partners. Arch Sex Behav 46, 2313–2325 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-1022-5

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Keywords

  • Mating
  • Friendship
  • Eye-tracking
  • Chest
  • Waist-to-hip ratio
  • Attraction