So, you're at a party with your favorite squeeze and you notice that a stunning specimen of the opposite sex has just sauntered into the room. How long does it take you to lapse into a blithering state of semiconsciousness, thinking the new arrival is the only other person in the room?
Less than half a second, according to new research out of Florida State University in Tallahassee.
The fixation on a beautiful face happens so quickly that it's involuntary, meaning the poor bloke who's about to get clobbered by his wife for checking out another woman, or vice versa, had no control over that initial impulse to stare at someone else.
"It's happening way too quickly for us to have any conscious control over it," said Jon Maner, associate professor of psychology at Florida State, lead author of the study, "Can't Take My Eyes off You: Attentional Adhesion to Mates and Rivals, which was published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
But, that excuse expires very quickly, say, in about 100 milliseconds. After that, Maner said, consciousness should take over. So, this research isn't going to get anybody off the hook.
Maner and three graduate students, Matthew Gailliot, D. Aaron Rouby and Saul Miller, ran three experiments to measure something scientists call attentional adhesion. That's the length of time something holds our attention, even if we know we're supposed to be looking at something else.
More than 440 students at the university took part in the experiments, so, this is a young crowd and not necessarily representative of society as a whole, but Maner suspects it might be pretty close.
They found that participants who had been primed to think about sex and mating — by writing an essay about a time when they felt extremely sexually aroused &$151; took longer to divert their gaze from a beautiful face of the opposite sex than they did from an average face.
"We were able to show that, within a blink of an eye, people were able to physically latch on to the attractive faces," Maner said.
But when they carried the experiments a step further, they came up with a very different result.
When participants were primed to think about an event that made them sexually jealous, they fixated on an attractive face of the same sex, not the opposite.
Those two results, Maner noted, are typical of all members of the animal kingdom that reproduce by mating. Everyone wants to get the best mate possible, and everyone wants to be sure no one else horns in. Hence, it's important to keep an eye on the competition.
There's one weakness in the research, in that it's impossible to control all the variables in a crowded room. So, the researchers turned to the virtual world of computers for their experiments.
Participants were "emotionally primed" either to be sexually aroused or jealous. Then, they sat in front of a computer terminal as various images flashed on different areas of the screen.
The rules called for participants to shift their gaze immediately to anything new that appeared on the screen. For example, a picture of a beautiful face could appear in a lower corner of the screen, and less than a second later, a circle or a square could appear elsewhere on the screen, just as the face disappeared.