Are You More Than Friends? Here’s One Way to Tell

How do you know if someone is attracted to you?

New research is changing the game for people who live in that torturous space between relationship clarity and relationship uncertainty: does she just want to be friends, or more? Is he flirting or friendly? If you’re interested but can’t read the other person’s intentions, each interaction can feel like an open invitation for confusion and awkwardness.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just know?

Researchers think so. A new study out of the University of Kansas and Wellesley College identifies a reliable way to differentiate people interested in friendship or love, and it focuses on eye gaze. It could be the “look of love” or just an extended gaze, but it seems people may gaze at others’ bodies differently when they’re interested in love versus friendship.

The idea that gaze patterns could serve as a secret decoder of friendship versus romantic attraction makes sense anecdotally (e.g., have you ever been given the “once over” from someone attracted to you?) and certainly from an evolutionary standpoint, too. Scholars who take an evolutionary perspective suggest that the dating game is a carefully choreographed dance designed to maximize successful reproduction. This includes finding a healthy fertile partner, the cues for which are often observable physical qualities like facial symmetry and a birthing-friendly hip-to-waist ratio.

In this research, just over 100 heterosexual participants viewed photographs with instructions to consider them as friends or as potential romantic partners. They used eye-tracking software to examine where participants were looking, as a function of their goals: friend or mate.

  1. Focus of the first glance. What’s the first gaze fixation point? Both men and women with romantic goals focused on potential partners’ chest areas, hip-to-wast areas, and their heads during the first moment of attention. When looking just for friendship, comparably more time was spent looking at the person in the photo’s feet and legs.
  2. Length of gaze matters. People with a romantic mind-set looked longer at potential partners’ heads and chest areas than people with friendship goals, and this was particularly true for men. Men attended to the chest region more than any area, and the waist area received considerable attention as well.
  3. Eye gaze can predict relationship potential. Taking their eye gaze fixation data, the researchers tried to determine if they could accurately predict participants’ self-reports of relationship interest. They could, though not perfectly. Women who looked at men’s hip-to-waist ratio reported more romantic interest in the target, and women looking more at men’s heads reported more friendship interest in those targets. Looking at the chest and legs (which is a bit inconsistent with the eye tracking data) corresponded with greater relationship interest.

So what does this all mean? It isn’t easy to track someone’s eye gaze when you first meet them, but this research does suggest there are subtle ways (or maybe sometimes… not so subtle?) that our eyes do the talking when it comes to our relationship goals.

From an evolutionary perspective, we have built-in mechanisms that support our ability to pass on our genes. One such mechanism may be sharpened visual sensitivity to physical attributes that matter in reproduction, but only if that’s our goal. We might spend extra time looking at faces when seeking a romantic partner because faces (e.g., in their symmetry) can reveal information on health, youth, and thereby, fertility; but this information is less relevant if we’re just in it for friendship. Likewise, the chest area can reveal male strength, waist-to-hip ratio can serve as a cue for child-bearing readiness, but these regions may not get extra attention if someone is not looking for a romantic relationship.

Altogether, this research gives us a novel way to consider how romantic motives might be unintentionally revealed through our nonverbal behaviors.

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