John and Stephanie Cacioppo, University of Chicago neuroscientists who are married to each other, study love. And lust.
Recently, the couple wanted to find out whether people look at potential mates differently if they perceive a long-term companion as opposed to a temporary sexual partner.
Their latest collaboration involved gathering 20 heterosexual college students (13 women and seven men) and showing them black-and-white photos of members of the opposite sex. The researchers used tracking software to record participants’ eye movements and asked subjects to report whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust.
The husband-and-wife duo, who met at a science conference, confirmed that when you see someone you’re romantically interested in, your gaze differs from when you’re looking at someone whom you’re only sexually attracted to. Specifically, people interested in the long haul zero in on the eyes and face of their object of affection, while people seeking a fling focus on the rest of the body. The Cacioppos’ paper, titled “Love Is in the Gaze,” was published last month in Psychological Science.
Love and lust live in different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, whereas sexual desire lights up its posterior.
While these results aren't news to any woman who has ever deadpanned, “My face is up here, buddy” to a guy giving her elevator eyes, it turns out that females do this too. (Women have better peripheral vision, though, so that may be why ladies don’t end up seeming as blatant about it.)
The study's outcome was consistent with what the Cacioppos expected. In earlier studies, they conducted brain scans which proved that love and lust live in different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, whereas sexual desire lights up its posterior. It makes sense once you understand how the brain is organized: "Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses," the researchers explain in the paper, "whereas anterior regions are more involved in relatively abstract, integrative representations."
“Love is not a prerequisite for sexual desire,” the scientists write, “and sexual desire does not necessarily lead to love. Love and lust can exist by themselves or in combination, and to any degree.” However, few studies had formally examined this concept. “Sexual desire has long been a neglected stepchild in scientific research on interpersonal attraction,” they write.
So what good does it do to know that where someone is looking correlates with how they’re feeling about someone? In the paper, the Cacioppos argue that these types of indicators could be helpful in couples therapy, especially in cases where the difference between love and lust is hard to determine. Plus, as the study’s abstract points out, “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.”
As for the Cacioppos, they share a name, a career, and even a desk, so we’re going to assume they make a lot of eye contact.
Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.