Men and women are different – we don't need science to tell us that – but are we different even in the way we see the world we share? Yes, according to new research, we see a different world even when we are looking at exactly the same thing.
Researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom used eye-tracking instruments to determine exactly where study participants looked when shown various photos of scenes ranging from a village street to heterosexual sex. They found a significant gender difference in where each participant looked while viewing the photos.
The difference was so clear, the researchers report in the current issue of the Public Library of Science, that they could be quite accurate in determining the gender of each participant just by studying where the eyes fixated, and how long they stayed there. They were right two thirds of the time for both sexes, and even much more frequently if the participant was female.
"The most striking" difference, the researchers conclude, "was that women looked away from and usually below many objects of interest," especially if the image was particularly "potent."
In other words, women were more likely to avert their eyes when faced with a powerful image.
Interestingly, both men and women looked more at the woman than the man in photos of couples -- and that was especially true for the female participants. Women were much more inclined than men to look at the female figure. The men spent more time focused on the face, especially that of the female.
That may seem counterintuitive, since men are commonly viewed as lusty animals and women as more demure. But what's going on here may be more than just sex.
"The study represents the most compelling evidence yet that, despite occupying the same world, the viewpoints of men and women can, at times, be very different," Felix Joseph Mercer Moss, a computer scientist in the university's experimental psychology department and lead author of the study, said in releasing the research.
But why did the women seem more interested in the female figure than the men? A male chauvinist might suggest that women are so conscious of their bodies that they are always eager to find fault in the figure of a potential competitor, but the scientists don't see that as the probable explanation.
The researchers cite other studies that show "increased female sensitivity to punishment." They suggest that when confronted with a powerful image, women "are more inclined to anticipate a threat than men … and adjusted their visual strategies accordingly." They looked at the body, not the face.
My guess is most people would think we would all focus on the eyes, because the eyes are viewed as the window into the soul, and there's little doubt that the eyes are critical in evaluating someone else. As the researchers note, though, "fixating on the eyes carries the highest reward, but also the highest risk."
We've all heard that old warning not to make eye contact with the thug on the street, and maybe that's at least partly what's at work here.
"Fixating on the nose or mouth brings less reward (than focusing on the eyes) but also avoids the associated potential threat," they add. Maybe the difference here is simply that women are more inclined to avoid a serious threat, so they focus on the body, or the nose, not the eyes.
Coincidentally, the English study coincides with new research from the University of California, Santa Barbara, that studied where our eyes fixate when looking at another face. That study found that we don't look directly at the other person's eyes. Instead, we tend to fixate just below the eyes, mostly along the ridge of the nose.
"For the majority of people, the first place we look at is somewhere in the middle, just below the eyes," psychologist Miguel Eckstein said in releasing that study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But why not focus on the eyes, if they are so important? Eckstein and his graduate student, Matt Peterson, theorize that we focus on the area between and slightly below the eyes because we are evolutionarily conditioned instantly to check far more than just the color of the other person's eyes. In other words, what we want to know is whether to fight, flee, or fall in love, so we need a broader source of information than just the eyes. Other facial characteristics, including the mouth and the nose, may add to our instant analysis of peril or pleasure.
"What the visual system is adept at doing is taking all those pieces of information from your face and combining them in a statistical manner to make a judgment about whatever task you're doing," Eckstein said.
In other words, do you fight or flee? The British study adds to a huge pile of research over many decades that suggests a man is more willing to confront, while a woman is more willing to retreat, so we look for different clues in the world around us. Even though we see the same world, we see it differently.