Of all the qualities that give an attractive person an edge, here’s one you’ve likely overseen: the limbal ring, the dark circle around iris. The limbal ring is the line that separates the colored part of the eye from the white (the sclera).
It’s completely unconscious, the way we all judge others’ limbal rings. In the 20 milliseconds or so it takes to assess a person’s attractiveness, you’re factoring in the size and shade of the limbal rings. The bigger and blacker they are, the more attractive the eyes. People with the prettiest eyes have the most prominent limbal rings.
This, anyhow, is the upshot of a recent study by Darren Peshek and his colleagues at the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine. The researchers showed volunteers eighty pairs of male and female faces. Each pair of faces was identical except the eyes: one had dark limbal rings and the other had no limbal rings. The volunteers were asked to pick which face was more attractive and to indicate their degree of preference.
Men thought women with the dark limbal rings were more attractive than those without, and women thought the same of men with dark limbal rings. Men and women also judged faces of the same sex as more attractive when the limbal rings were large.
Looking into my baby daughter’s eyes, I see the blue of her iris is framed by a thick black limbal ring. The contrast makes the white of her eyes so white they look blue. The very young have the thickest, darkest limbal rings.
Which is exactly the point. The limbal ring serves as an honest signal of youth and health-desirable qualities, reproductively speaking. The ring fades with age and with medical problems. It’s thickest from infancy through the early twenties. A thick, dark limbal ring may make us appear younger. It makes the whites of the eyes whiter. This might be why so many people think light eyes are so sexy: the limbal ring, when present, shows up more.
There are so many ways to fake the appearance of youth. You can wear makeup and wigs and get tummy tucks, plastic surgery, Botox, and boob jobs.
But a fake limbal ring?
Yes, this too. Long ago, Japanese schoolgirls discovered the edge a limbal ring can give you by wearing “limbal ring” contact lenses. They make the eye look bigger and more defined. And while you’re eyeing these contacts, you might as well buy a set that expands your pupils too. Big, dark, dilated pupils signal emotional arousal. They, too, act on the unconscious favorably.
The limbal ring is well-named. Limbis means border or edge, and it’s related to limbic, meaning emotion or drives. The limbal ring, seen from inches away, is an intimacy zone. Don’t flirt until you see the whites of their eyes.
I’ve always been a fan of the MIT Media Lab, and in BLONDES I write about Media Lab director Alex Pentland’s development of a machine that tracks “vocal body language” — pitch, speed, the space between words, and so on. Tested in a speed dating study, the machine had an impressive accuracy rate. About 70 percent of the time it could predict whether a man and woman was interested in each other, and whether they’d say yes to a second date.
Now it turns out that researchers at Stanford are following suit, in what may someday be the next big iPhone app.
Computer scientist Rajesh Ranganath and his colleagues developed a “flirtation-detection machine” that — based on prosodic, dialogue, and lexical clues — can detect a speaker’s intent to flirt with up to 71.5 percent accuracy. (In contrast, men were only 56.2 percent accurate when assessing if their date was flirting with them, and women were only 62.2 percent accurate.) Results were derived by testing the machine’s analysis against the self-reported intentions and perceptions of men and women on a speed date.
Without going into the technical details of the study, here are a few of the findings:
1. [When flirting],men ask more questions, and use more “you” and “we.” They laugh more, and use more sexual, anger, and negative emotional words. Prosodically they speak faster, with higher pitch, but quieter [softer voice] (lower intensity min).
2. [When flirting], women use more “I” and less “we”; men use more “we” and “you”. Men labeled as flirting are softer, but women labeled as flirting are not. Women who say they are flirting have a much expanded pitch range (lower pitch min, higher pitch max), laugh more, use more “I” and “well,” use repair questions (Excuse me?) but not other kinds of questions, use more sexual terms, use far less appreciations (Wow, That’s true, Oh, great) and backchannels (Uh-huh., Yeah., Right., Oh, okay.), and use fewer, longer turns, with more words in general [than do men].
3. Both genders convey intended flirtation by laughing more, speaking faster, and using higher pitch. However, we do find gender differences; men ask more questions when they say they are flirting, women ask fewer, although they do use more repair questions, while men do not.
Interestingly, the device was able to predict flirtation in men with greater accuracy than in women (79.5 percent versus 68.0 percent). In BLONDES I write about evolution and men’s overperception bias; essentially, guys are wired to think women are into them when they are not. I wonder if this is also true of the machines men make.
French psychologist Nicolas Gueguen is fun. He’s the guy who asks the pressing questions we’d all like answered, whether we admit it or not: Does makeup really make a woman more attractive to men?; Are dog owners more likely to get dates?; How much does cup size really matter?; and How does priming men to think about love change their behavior?
And now Gueguen strikes again, this time with a study on courtship and “foot-in-the-door-technique.” The latter is an actual term in psychology. “Foot in the door” is a compliance tactic in which an initial, small difficult-to-turn-down request is made (as in a solicitor asking passers-by on the street for their signature). Once people acquiesce to an easy request, they are likelier to agree to a larger request (to donate money, time, etc.). Kids seem to implicitly know the foot-in-the-door effect, as when they ask for a small treat, followed immediately by a request for a larger one.
But what about men looking for love (or sex)?
Gueguen wanted to know if the foot-in-the-door technique would work in a pick-up context, so he recruited a nice-looking guy in his twenties to solicit young, hot women in the street. Over a series of days the man approached 360 different ladies, and asked them if they’d like to have a drink with him. Some of the time he approached them, greeted them, and made the drink offer right away. In the foot-in-the-door condition, however, he asked them for directions or requested a light for his cigarette before inviting them to have a drink with him.
Turns out, the technique works. Women were significantly more likely to say yes to a drink with the guy if he made a minor request immediately beforehand. That’s how foot-in-the-door works, by fostering compliance. It’s easier to say no when the no hasn’t been preceded by a yes. (Incidentally, it’s also more difficult to say no after nodding your head.)
Of course, for most men the aim is to get much more than a foot in the door. For that, I suspect the actual nature of the second, larger request counts a lot. Ask too much, guys, and you’ll get a door-in-the-face.
In BLONDES I wrote about the pick-up lines men use to strike up conversation with women. Direct compliments were bad, sexual come-ons worse. The most effective lines involved those that suggested social status (“This drink’s on me; I know the owner.”) and kindness (“Let me help you get to the front of the line”) or culture and wealth (“I like your Versace sunglasses. I’ve got a pair too.”)
But given that women also approach men, what pick-up lines should women use?
The answer is direct no-nonsense lines, according to a recent study led by Joel Wade at Bucknell University. Wade and his colleagues asked 40 female undergrads which lines they’d use to pick up a guy, and how likely they’d use those lines in a real-life situation. More than 30 men were than asked to evaluate the lines.
“Hey, want to meet up later tonight?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I like your hair”
“Give me a call – here’s my number”
trumped the more subtle
“Hello, how’s it going?”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
“How was your weekend?”
and humorous/sexual comments (e.g. “Your shirt matches my bed spread, basically you belong in my bed”).
The more direct, the better. One interpretation of these findings is that men have a distaste for subtlety. Studies show that men have an overestimation bias — they’re more likely to think a woman is interested in them even when she’s not — so any blatant reinforcement is welcome. A direct pick-up line also suggests a more sexually motivated woman. She wants you, not just a chat.
I find it odd that men weren’t more responsive to direct sexual/humorous come-ons by women; I suspect it depends on the context and delivery. (The sample lines in the study were also real duds.) Or it supports the theory that many men don’t prefer sexually aggressive women. Even if a woman makes the first foray, men like a pursuit.
All this leads me to point to the limitations of studies such as this one. Men were asked to rate pick-up lines, but the effectiveness of the lines was not tested in an actual situation. See, guys are visual creatures; a direct pick-up line won’t work if they don’t find the woman attractive. And assuming the woman is comely enough, I suspect any come-on would work equally well.
When a man meets a friendly woman, chances are he thinks she’s into him even when she isn’t. (As discussed in BLONDES this evolutionary bias is reversed in women; in fact, we’re more likely to think a man is just not all that into us. It’s especially true now that a certain mantra-like book and movie has drummed the notion into women’s subconscious.)
But can men tell if a woman is into every man she meets, not just him specifically? The answer is yes, according to Tyler Stillman and Jon Maner at the University of Florida. In their latest study, the psychologists asked 24 women to take a questionnaire that measured their sexual strategies, from high restricted (highly selective) to unrestricted (highly promiscuous). Then, one by one, they paired the women up with a “fairly attractive” and charismatic male research assistant and asked the duo to solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle without talking and using only one hand each.
Later, male and female judges watched videos of the Rubik’s Cube-solvers, paying special attention to the women’s body language as they interacted with the cute guy. When asked to identify which women had promiscuous dispositions, the judges were surprisingly accurate. This might not be so surprising. More interesting are the body language cues associated with high sociosexuality versus those that were not.
While you might think any friendly body language might be interpreted by an unknowing observer as licentious, that’s just not so. It turns out that classic cues such as smiling, laughing, tilting the head, wearing a provocative dress, touching the hair, leaning towards a man with an open posture, are not reliable signals of promiscuity — just friendly flirtation — and even impartial observers could tell the difference. What distinguished wanton women’s behavior from that of their more selective peers were just a handful of cues: eyebrow flashes (frequent raising of the eyebrows for one-sixth of a second), fervid glances, and easy distraction from the task at hand.
In keeping with evolutionary theory, women were even more accurate than men when it came to perceiving whether a woman was an indiscriminate tart. To men, knowing a woman’s sexual disposition is helpful. It’s an opportunity! To women, particularly to jealous types, a licentious flirt represents something even more visceral: a threat.