Eye Patterns Tell Love or Desire
July 22, 2014

Eye Patterns Tell Love Or Desire

Many people confuse love for lust in their personal lives, and a new study has found that how a person looks at a potential partner can provide a hint as to whether they are interested in a short-term or long-term romantic relationship.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study indicated that if a person’s gaze fixates on another person’s face, they look at that person as a probable partner in romantic love, but when the viewer looks more at a stranger’s body – he or she is more interested in them as a sexual object.

“Although little is currently known about the science of love at first sight or how people fall in love, these patterns of response provide the first clues regarding how automatic attentional processes, such as eye gaze, may differentiate feelings of love from feelings of desire toward strangers,” said study author Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the neuroimaging laboratory at the University of Chicago.

The new paper is based on previous research by the same group that found distinct brain regions are stimulated by love and sexual desire. In the new study, the team conducted two tests to evaluate visual patterns in an attempt to examine two distinct emotional and cognitive conditions that are often challenging to separate from one another: romantic love and sexual desire.

To reach their conclusion, the study team recruited both male and female students from the University of Geneva and asked them to look at a series of black-and-white pictures of individuals they had in no way met. In a first part of the experiment, volunteers considered photos of young, adult heterosexual couples that were checking out or interacting with each other. In the second part, volunteers viewed photographs of desirable individuals of the reverse sex who were looking straight at the viewer. Not one of the photos had nudity or erotic images.

In both parts, volunteers were asked to look at look at blocks of photographs and decide as quickly and accurately as possible whether they thought each photograph or the people in the photograph elicited feelings of sexual desire or romantic love. The researchers did not find a significant difference in the time it took participants to decide on romantic love versus sexual desire, the researchers noted.

An analysis of the eye-tracking using computer software found major differences in eye movement patterns, and these differences were related to whether the subjects reported feelings of sexual desire or romantic love. Those who said a photo elicited a feeling of romantic love tended to look more at the on the face. Subjects’ eyes tended to fixate on the rest of the body when they reported feeling of sexual desire. This connection was found for male and female volunteers.

“By identifying eye patterns that are specific to love-related stimuli, the study may contribute to the development of a biomarker that differentiates feelings of romantic love versus sexual desire,” said study author John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “An eye-tracking paradigm may eventually offer a new avenue of diagnosis in clinicians’ daily practice or for routine clinical exams in psychiatry and/or couple therapy.”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Brett Smith is a freelance journalist from Buffalo, NY. When not writing about science, medicine or other newsworthy topics, he enjoys Upstate New York by camping and hiking in the summers and snowboarding in the winters. Like most Buffalonians, he eats chicken wings year round.

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