If you want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his gaze

Sorry, Betty Everett. The way to tell love from lust is to look at how people look at each other

Topics: Love, Sex, lust, sexual desire, study, Research, Psychology, Neuroscience, Love and Sex, Emotions,

If you want to know if he loves you so, it's in his gaze (Credit: varuna via Shutterstock)

I’m no songwriter, but I think most would agree it’s sexier to say that love is “in his kiss” as opposed to “in his automatic gaze patterns.” But, unfortunately for soul singer Betty Everett and lovers of “The Shoop Shoop Song,” the latter phrasing is actually more accurate when it comes to telling the difference between love and lust. According to the authors of a new study from the University of Chicago, where a person looks first at a romantic interest — the face, the body — provides a clear indication of that person’s immediate romantic judgements. In as little as half a second, it’s possible to tell if true love might be on the horizon, or if someone’s feelings are purely sexual.

The study, published on Thursday in Psychological Science, scanned the gaze patterns of several male and female university students while they looked at a variety of black and white images, first of young adult heterosexual couples interacting with one another, then of members of the opposite sex (presumably all of the participants identified as heterosexual themselves). Participants were asked to judge whether they perceived romantic love or sexual desire in each image as quickly and precisely as possible, all the while having their eye movements tracked by the researchers. Most participants made a judgement call almost immediately, with no significant difference in how long it took to perceive love or lust, indicating how rapidly the brain is able to process both emotions.

Interestingly, researchers found that participants’ eye patterns varied markedly depending on whether they reported perceiving romantic love or sexual desire. When students reported feelings of love, their gazes tended to stay focused on the photographed subject’s face. When they reported feelings of lust, however, participants’ eyes tended to stray away from the face and fixate on different parts of the body. And no, it wasn’t just men whose eyes wandered — researchers found the results consistent for both male and female participants.



“Although little is currently known about the science of love at first sight or how people fall in love, these patterns of response provide the first clues regarding how automatic attentional processes, such as eye gaze, may differentiate feelings of love from feelings of desire toward strangers,” said the study’s lead author, Stephanie Cacioppo. Because the responses happen so quickly, though, it might not be easy for the average person to catch these judgements as they’re being made. But, according to Cacioppo’s co-author and husband, John Cacioppo, these findings could have positive repercussions in a variety of fields.

“By identifying eye patterns that are specific to love-related stimuli, the study may contribute to the development of a biomarker that differentiates feelings of romantic love versus sexual desire,” John Cacioppo said. “An eye-tracking paradigm may eventually offer a new avenue of diagnosis in clinicians’ daily practice or for routine clinical exams in psychiatry and/or couple therapy.”

Soon enough, one of the most complicated human emotions might not be shrouded in so much mystery. For now, though, it’s probably still okay to judge love by kisses.

Jenny Kutner

Jenny Kutner is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on sex, gender and feminism. Follow @jennykutner or email jkutner@salon.com.

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