National Geographic News
A man and a woman wave as confetti falls around them.
A new study finds men and women literally focus on different things.

Photograph from Moviestore/Alamy

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic News

Published November 30, 2012

Men and women have always seen things differently. Now we're closer to understanding why.

A new study published today in PLoS One finds that males and females actually view images in different ways.

When University of Bristol researchers asked 52 men and women to study various images, gender differences emerged in terms of where the subjects focused their attention and in how much of a picture they explored. (Learn how men and women see colors.)

The 26 female and 26 male study participants—ranging in age from 19 to 47—tended to focus on anywhere from one to five "hot spots" in still images made from films and taken of artwork. The images included scenes from movies such as The Sound of Music, Inside Man, and The Blue Planet, and artwork including "People in the Sun" by Edward Hopper and "Three Graces" by David Bowers.

Most of the hot spots involved the faces of people in the pictures, especially eyes, as well as other body parts, such as hands.

 

This diagram shows the most eye-catching areas of the photo above for women (red) and men (blue).
This diagram shows the most eye-catching areas of the photo above for women (red) and men (blue).

Illustration courtesy Felix Mercer Moss

 

Women, however, explored more of an image than men did, often focusing on nonfacial areas and places slightly below where men fixed their gaze.

Lead author Felix Mercer Moss, a vision researcher and doctoral student at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, speculates that risk aversion may explain some of the differences. In Western culture, a direct gaze can be construed as threatening.

"Women may be attaching more risk to looking people in the eye," Mercer Moss noted, which is why they may focus their gaze on a lower part of the face than men do. (Learn about risk taking and the teenage brain.)

Research on gender differences in eye movements isn't new. But previous studies used specific imagery, such as faces registering emotions or sexually suggestive pictures, said Mercer Moss. In this study, he wanted to know whether gender differences existed when people viewed more general visual stimuli. It turns out they do.

The next step is to figure out why, says Andrew Bayliss of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Bayliss, a social cognition researcher who was not involved in this study, thinks Mercer Moss and his colleagues are off to an exciting start.

Mercer Moss himself hopes the study results will promote better eye-movement research. "University departments that do this kind of eye-tracking work tend to have skewed gender ratios," he noted. These include computer-science departments, which tend to be male-dominated, and psychology departments, which tend to be female-dominated.

That means results from such studies may not be broadly applicable, Mercer Moss explained.

But one thing now seems clear: As the age-old battle of the sexes continues, beauty isn't the only thing in the eye of the beholder.

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