Men and women found to absorb visual information differently

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A study conducted by a team of psychologists at the Queen Mary University of London found that eye-scanning motion differs from male to female subjects, debunking the theory that assumed all human beings follow a triangular path when they scan faces with their eyes.

Previous studies concluded that when scanning someone’s face, a person starts at the eyes and then drops down to the mouth, with the visual path forming an inverted triangle. Now, updated results dictate that several factors such as emotion, personality and social context were not taken into account, even though these factors may profoundly alter results. For example, if an individual who is lower in status scans the face of an individual higher in status, he or she may not necessarily start at the eyes due to intimidation.

The report concludes that women and men register faces differently. To obtain these results, the scientists largely expanded their participant pool to reflect a significant range of both age and nationality. There was almost an equal number of participants from both sexes. Data from participants who were determined to have eye irregularities were not calculated into the final results.

The first part of the experiment consisted of a questionnaire from the Big Five personality inventory. Participants were then sat down for the eye-tracking portion of the experiment.

Each participant was shown a video clip of one of eight actors, four of whom were men and four of whom were women. In each clip, an actor faced forward and maintained a neutral gaze. Each actor looked first to the bottom of the screen for a fraction of a second, then to the participant and then back to the bottom of the screen.

Male and female subjects were found to have different eye-scanning motions while absorbing visual information. Photo by: Agata Poniatowski

In order to evaluate each participant’s initial eye movement, 40 clips featuring one randomly selected actor were shown. In between clips, participants refocused by staring at a gray background with a black cross etched into the middle. Then participants were asked to evaluate the actors’ faces for signs of attractiveness, dominance, threat and trustworthiness.

The results identified that women have a greater inclination to explore a wider facial area while men tend to focus on a specific zone. Thus, female gazes are more brief. Women also have a tendency to look into the left eye of another individual rather than the right. Interestingly enough, the study concluded that both men and women are less likely to “gaze at the eyes of a same-sex actor than of a different-sex actor.”

A final analysis concludes that this experiment supports the evidence that women are able to perceive feelings and read faces more accurately than men. The results of this experiment indicate that women may excel at interpreting nonverbal cues. It is suggested that if the experiment had included a larger portion of the actors’ bodies, female participants would have examined a greater range of areas, which could contribute to the notion that women pick up body language better than men.

“The team observed that it was possible to tell the gender of the participant based on the scanning pattern of how they looked at the face with nearly 80 percent accuracy. Given the very large sample size the researchers suggest this is not due to chance,” notes the study’s press release published on AlphaGalileo.

In the report’s discussion, the scientists identified how the experiment achieved optimal results due to the techniques used. The report reads, “We found both the gender of the observer and of the actor to be the most efficient variables to separate the different recorded exploration strategies into two homogeneous subgroups.”

The results are important because they can help with developments in disorder diagnosis. Signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, for example, may be more easily detectable with face-processing techniques and eye-tracking data. Additionally, individual benefits across fields like employment and interpersonal relationship development can surface if people are able to communicate more effectively without hearing verbal speech.