How Would You Know if You Are in Love or in Lust?

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Originally posted on December 4, 2014.

Walk down a sidewalk and someone will likely take notice. Just where do their eyes linger? You can tell a lot about whether they think you are Mr. Right—or Mr. Right Now—based on where their eyes gravitate.

So says recent research conducted at the University of Chicago. Students viewed photographs of people and reported whether they caused them to experience romantic love or sexual desire. The students also wore an eyetracker, which recorded which parts of each photograph captured their attention. The idea is that romantic love causes people to try to understand what another person is thinking. Sexual desire encourages people to pay attention to objects that reflect concrete sensations and feelings.

Romantic love drove people to fixate their attention on people’s faces. This makes sense. If I want to understand what someone is thinking, I should look at their face. Their facial expression might also give me a clue as to whether they return my interest. Sexual desire created a different picture. When people saw a photograph that caused them to experience sexual desire, their eyes stuck on people’s bodies.

This love versus lust response operates automatically. Participants didn’t think carefully about where to position their eyes. Their eyes simply gravitated toward bodily locations that were most relevant to romantic love or sexual desire. Just how big of a difference was there between how long participants spent looking at faces when they experienced love rather than lust? A little over 400 milliseconds. That’s a tad longer than an eyeblink.

But don’t let that slight difference take anything away from how cool these findings are. They show how efficiently our minds work to alert us to information that relates to our emotions and goals. By knowing this wrinkle about how the mind works, your walks may never be the same. 

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”