By Craig Weatherby
Men and women are different.
This sounds like a penetrating glimpse into the obvious.
But research is rapidly uncovering previously unknown distinctions between the sexes.
Conventional wisdom holds that men and women tend to hold different views.
Now, findings from Britain's University of Bristol indicate that this may literally true.
UK study detects differences in what attracts the eye
A team of psychologists and computer scientists from the University of Bristol recruited 52 women and men for a clinical study.
The participants were asked to view 80 still images from films ad artworks, while the researchers recorded where men and women looked while viewing the images.
While women made fewer eye movements than men, those they did make were longer and to more varied locations.
These differences were largest when viewing images of people.
With regard to images of heterosexual couples, both men and women preferred looking at the female figure … but this preference was even stronger for women.
And, while men were only interested in the faces of the two figures, women's eyes were also drawn to the rest of the bodies … in particular to the female figure.
As lead researcher Felix Mercer Moss said: “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.” (UB 2012)
What do the findings mean?
The researchers suggested that men and women look at different things because they interpret the world differently.
The pictures preferred by women were the same pictures that produced the most distinct “looking patterns”.
Similarly, pictures containing people produced the largest differences between where men and women looked.
The UK team suggested that one perceptual sex difference in particular – women's increased sensitivity to threat – may explain a further finding.
While men made direct eye contact with faces in the pictures; especially when primed to look for threat, women averted their gaze downward slightly towards the nose and mouth of these faces.
The researchers hypothesized that women may be more sensitive to the negative consequences of making direct eye contact.
Accordingly, women would tend to shift their gaze downward, towards the center of the face.
People's eyes are drawn to the most informative regions of an image while also being repelled from areas that carry possible threat or danger.
Faces are both highly informative – they can help reveal emotional states – and potentially threatening, particularly if eye contact is made.
However, surprisingly, a recent study found that viewing a tennis player's entire body provided a far more accurate guide to the player's emotional state, versus looking only at their face. (Aviezer H et al. 2012)
The most obvious application of these findings may be in the realm of advertising.
Companies selling gender-specific product could use these revelations to pick or compose print or internet images to fit their target consumers' proclivities.
Aviezer H, Trope Y, Todorov A. Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions. Science. 2012 Nov 30;338(6111):1225-9. doi: 10.1126/science.1224313.
Mercer Moss FJ, Baddeley R, Canagarajah N (2012) Eye Movements to Natural Images as a Function of Sex and Personality. PLoS ONE 7(11): e47870. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047870. Accessed at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi% 2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0047870
University of Bristol (UB). Men and women explore the visual world differently November 30, 2012. Accessed at http://www.bris.ac.uk/news/2012/8981.html