Study: Brains designed to protect sweetheart from rivals

Valentine's Day is a good time for men and women to attend to their lovers -- just in case anyone else might be looking.

While people of each gender tend to ogle beautiful people of the opposite sex, they also check out good-looking rivals who might show interest in their partner, a study shows.

The Florida State University researchers examined something that isn't a surprise to anyone -- people's eyes are quickly drawn to someone attractive. But this being serious research, they gave it a serious name: "attentional adhesion."

Jon Maner, an assistant professor of psychology, said human brains are designed to latch on to people's attractive features in a quest to find the right mate, or to guard a sweetheart from rivals.

"I was also surprised that jealous men paid so much attention to attractive men," Maner said.

The professor's findings were published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Graduate students Matthew Gailliot, Aaron Rouby and Saul Miller co-wrote it.

Maner and his colleagues found that the study participants -- all heterosexual men and women -- fixated on highly attractive people within the first half-second of seeing them, even if it was someone of the same sex.

In three experiments, 442 respondents completed questionnaires to determine the extent to which they were motivated to seek out members of the opposite sex.

They were then shown photos of attractive men and women and average-looking men and women.

After a photo of one of the faces flashed in one quadrant of a computer screen, the participants were required to shift their attention away to somewhere else on the screen. Electronic eye-tracking equipment found that it took participants about a tenth of a second longer to shift their attention away from photos of attractive people.

"Literally in the blink of an eye ... just a tenth of a second, we can detect attractiveness," Maner said. "I don't think we had a good sense of just how automatic and nonconscious this kind of attentional bias can be."

And that stare most likely lasts even longer outside a lab.

"In the real world, when people are looking at real people, I suspect attention would linger quite a bit longer," Maner said.

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