Science Fact: Gaze tracking reveals exactly what you’re looking at, through the combined magic of video imaging and computer analysis. And researchers have used this very accurate measurement technique to confirm the truth of one of women’s peeves: the man you just met looked first at your chest, then your hips, and only then at your face. This “objectifying gaze” may occur in the wink of an eye but ladies, you knew it and now Science does too.
But get this: women — yes, that’s straight women — often look at women exactly the same way! What’s going on?
The usual explanation in the case of men is that there’s a caveman living back in every man’s brainstem, controlling reactions and automatic movements, completely outside his conscious control. And that caveman is interested in, well, you know. This explanation doesn’t seem to work for women: the inner cavewoman, if there is one, is probably not looking at another woman with a view to passing her genes along to the next generation.
When science can’t find an easy explanation, it invents a complicated one — see the Note below for Mark Twain’s assessment of this phenomenon. In this case, researchers hypothesize that women may internalize men’s gazing patterns and use them not only to self-evaluate, but also to evaluate other women. In other words, women may see other women within a framework that reflects patriarchic male priorities. Of course, there are other possibilities: perhaps women have been conditioned by evolution to size up other women as genetic competitors. As a man, I’m in no position to explain this.
In any case, it seems that very many of us become unwitting lechers, if only for that first moment. This fascinating research was published in the Springer journal Sex Roles, HERE. It used a head-mounted eye tracker with three video cameras that looks like a bionic torture device.
The study was conducted by Gervais, Holland and Dodd of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is limited to people in Western cultures. Evidence of Western Man’s moral decay? Hmm, not necessarily. It’s more to the point to say that the behavior revealed by gaze tracking is partially or totally culturally determined, and people in other cultures may act quite differently.
Science Speculation: Gaze tracking is not a new technology. It has been used in the advertising business for years. Admen can test the effectiveness of commercials with focus groups, not just by asking people what attracted them about an ad display, but by using gaze tracking to measure exactly what they looked at, and for how long.
Another application comes in studies of driver distraction by such activities as texting, eating a taco, or applying lipstick. Gaze tracking reveals just how long the driver’s attention was taken off the road. Fortunately for all of us, such studies are generally conducted in driving simulators inside a laboratory and not on Interstate Ten.
What would gaze tracking reveal about your own eye movement when meeting someone new? If you pay close attention, can you tell where your vision is directed during that first second or two?
Note: Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, said: “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”
Drawing Credit: Ted, on openclipart.org