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Meeting someone new? How a gaze signals the desire for romance (or not)

Where our eyes linger on a new acquaintance signals whether we see them as a potential friend or a lover, a new study finds.
/ Source: TODAY

If that handsome stranger you spotted across the room has lowered his gaze to your feet, don't count on a date.

Chances are he’s picturing you two as platonic pals rather than romantic partners, according to a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Meeting for the first time? How we gaze upon each other signals our desire for friendship or more, a new study finds.
Meeting for the first time? How we gaze upon each other signals our desire for friendship or more, a new study finds. bokan / Shutterstock / bokan

To learn whether people gaze upon potential friends and possible lovers differently, researchers at Wellesley College and the University of Kansas rounded up 105 heterosexual college students — 36 men, 69 women —for a two-part experiment that asked them to look at 10 images.

Friend or lover, at a glance

The study's volunteers were first asked to look at photos of both men and women and decide which of them looked like they could be a potential friend.

Then they were asked to look at another set of images — five members of the opposite sex from the original set and five new images of the opposite sex — and consider which of them could be potential romantic partners.

All the while, the researchers were using an eye-tracking device to determine what parts of the body volunteers stared at.

While people in both scenarios initially looked at faces and chests — signaling potential romantic interest— they were more likely to avert their eyes to the person's legs and feet if they decided that person was strictly platonic-friend material.

The significance of an averted gaze

Knowing the significance of an averted gaze “might save people a lot of time,” said study coauthor Angela Bahns, an assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College. “I would think you would get the sense everything is not going well if the person averts his gaze in conversation.”

But body language expert Patty Wood says looking at someone's feet doesn't necessarily mean you're not interested in romance. Wood suspects that people evaluating someone new might deliberately look to the positioning of that person's feet for clues about their mood and personality.

“Feet are the most honest part of the body,” said Wood, author of “Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma.”

“We’re very socially aware of what we do with our faces and upper body,” she explained. “The feet are more controlled by the limbic system and the fight or flight response.”

Looking at the positioning of the feet, you may be able to tell if the person is aggressive, comfortable or anxious, Wood said.

And there are other clues about personality to be gleaned from a stranger's feet — particularly their footwear — said Arthur Aron, a research professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Is that handsome stranger wearing a nice pair of loafers — or flip-flops?

“I think the shoes tell you something,” Aron said. “They didn’t tell much about how much people’s clothing (in the study) varied, but I think you could presume they were all wearing jeans. But, people differ a lot in the types of shoes they wear.”