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Learning the Look of Love: That Sly “Come Hither” Stare

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Series Intro

While it might not be witchcraft, the formula for ‘love at first sight’ remains a mystery. However, if you pop the following ingredients into a kettle: large pupils, long glances, and a lovely, attentive smile, you may not have concocted a bona fide love potion but your witch’s brew could contain some insight into the laws of attraction.

Being an optometrist and all around eye aficionado, I have a deep interest in the connection between the eyes and love. After reviewing many decades of literature and research, I have picked out a few studies that I think help us to understand how love affects our eyes and how our eyes can affect the level of attraction and love we feel for someone else. Let’s start off this “Learning The Look of Love” series by first exploring love and eye contact.

Part One: That Sly ‘Come Hither’ Stare

Let’s pretend it’s Friday night, you’re in a bar and you are people watching. It’s dim in here but what do you see? You may see strangers exchanging glances with each other from across the crowded room. Once their eyes meet if eye contact is established and a look is held, the game of love has begun. A man peers around the room and becomes suddenly intrigued by a woman returning his glance. The glance turns into a gaze. He initially found her beautiful but now the magnetism of her prolonged eye contact has amplified her attractiveness.

Like the man in the bar, we do perceive people as more attractive when they are engaged in eye contact with us and when they shift their direction of gaze towards us as confirmed in experiments performed by Mason et al in 2005. This directed gaze apparently signals their interest and the fact that they find us interesting makes them even more appealing to us. In other words, if someone who you find attractive locks eyes with you, they automatically go up a notch on your love barometer.

Now, back to the bar. The male makes his way over to the female once good eye contact has been established and returned but what would have signaled him to come over even quicker? Perhaps along with the look of love, a smile would have reassured her interest in him.

Ben Jones and his team knew there must be more to it than just the eyes. The man in the bar feels a heightened amount of attraction for a woman who is looking at him and smiling at him. They did an experiment in 2006 demonstrating that when someone smiles while directing their interest and eye contact towards us, their attractiveness is boosted, more than someone who looks at us without smiling or when someone is smiling but not looking at us. Of interesting note, we also can find someone attractive if they are looking away from us and not smiling. I guess if your date or potential mate is directing a smile at anyone, it makes sense we’d like it most if that smile was directed towards us because it is that purposeful, attentive smile and stare that can spark the feeling of a connection between two people.

So the man and woman in the bar looked at each other and smiled. Now what? Initial attraction was there, fine, but could long glances really blossom into feelings of love?

Kellerman et al took 72 unacquainted, undergraduate students, split them into male-female pairs and then studied the effects that two minutes of uninterrupted mutual eye contact had on their feelings towards one another. In their study, they found that if the two strangers gazed into each others’ eyes for those two minutes, they later reported they had increased feelings of passionate love and affection towards the other person. Another phase of the experiment had the pairs of students interact in other ways like looking at their partner’s hands or counting blinks of their partner but it was mutual eye contact that best fanned the flames of attraction. This suggests that long periods of eye contact can connect you to someone and even ignite feelings of love inside you for that person you have never previously met.

And for those already in love? Well, they look at each other more than average. Zick Rubin, a social psychologist, did a study on romantic love back in the 1970’s which is still frequently referenced. He came up with a scale that measured the degree to which two people were in love and the strength of their feelings for one another. He had college couples come in and each person filled out a survey asking them questions about their relationship. Then he left them alone saying that the next part of the experiment would start soon. Little did they know, it already had. By observing the amount of eye contact couples gave each other when left alone and comparing it with the level of love their surveys had measured, he found that people whose survey showed a stronger connection of love also held eye contact for longer periods of time than those who had a weaker connection of love.

Another way of looking at it? Let’s journey back to the bar one last time and turn our eyes towards the lovely couple seated at the table in front of us. They are not taking their eyes off each other, they look like they are in deep conversation and in their own little world. The waitress is treated as an unwanted interruption and burden. And this in fact just might be the case. According to Rubin, normally two people in conversation give each other eye contact anywhere from 30-60% of the time but couples who are in love look at each other 75% of the time during conversation and are slower to break their look away from each other when interrupted.

Now I am not saying the next time you are at a bar you should act like a pick up artist and look deeply into your potential mate’s eyes trying to hypnotize them into a love connection. There is a point where unrequited eye contact can go from flirty to just plain creepy. Also, when out for a romantic dinner you should not all of the sudden start staring down your spouse from across the table but a little more eye contact couldn’t hurt.

The complex magic of love can’t be boiled down to a wink, a nod and a grin but it is easy to see that the eyes have a lot to do with physical attraction, seduction and romantic love.

So, are the eyes really the windows to the soul? Perhaps we should say they are the windows to the heart.

Keep an eye out for Part Two in the series “The Look of Love” on large pupils and love.


Jones BC, Debruine LM, Little AC, Conway CA, Feinberg DR. Integrating gaze direction and expression in preferences for attractive faces. Psychol Sci. 2006 Jul;17(7):588-91. PMID: 16866744

Kellerman J, Lewis J, Laird JD. Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of romantic love. J Research in Personality, 1989 June; 23(2):145-61.doi: 10.1016/0092=6566(89)90020-2

Mason MF, Tatkow EP, Macrae CN. The look of love: gaze shifts and person perception. Psychol Sci. 2005 Mar;16(3):236-9. PMID: 15733205

Rubin Z. Measurement of romantic love. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1970 Oct; 16(2):265-73. PMID: 5479131

Photo credits: Bright Eyes: stock.xchng photo by mokra; Sunset Kiss and author’s photo by Erica Angiolillo, Gotcha! by Erica; Lovers: stock photo at stock.xchng by Dariusz Bargiel

Cheryl Murphy About the Author: Cheryl G. Murphy is an optometrist and freelance science writer living and working in New York State. She began writing about vision science on her blog,Science Hidden in Plain Sight, in 2008. Links to her previous contributions to Scientific American’s guest blog can be found here. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Follow on Twitter @murphyod.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. Postulator 4:16 am 10/18/2011

    Sorry, but I’m Asperger’s. I don’t do (or receive) body language.

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  2. 2. PhillyJimi 1:25 am 10/20/2011

    I can’t tell you how many times at a bar, a female friend will complain and say, “that guy is staring at me and it is really creeping me out”. Please don’t be that guy. Then again I have meet woman at bars and by the end of the night we’re communicating with our eyes from across the bar after a few flirty playful conservations. The differences are subtle but the timing of eye communications couldn’t be more different.

    This article is a bit confusing and I am worried some guys will use this the wrong way. There is a very big difference between 2 complete strangers at a bar and a romantic dinner with an established couple. The “come hither” eye conservation between established lovers is not the same communication to give to a complete stranger at a bar, (unless she charges by the hour).

    I use the example of a male at a bar. The better looking females will be getting strong eye contact from almost every guy in the bar who is somewhat self confident. There is nothing special about this kind of strong eye contact, it will feed her ego but it is not a path to love. Just walk down a crowed city street with a very attractive women and notice how many uncomfortable stares she gets from all the guys.

    I have had conservations with complete strangers, just using my eyes but I would call it more of a fun flirting eye contact not a “come hither” conservation. It is usually the engineer types that mess this up.

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  3. 3. murphyod 11:23 am 10/20/2011

    @Postulator, there are many ways to fall in love and communicate love without using body language. =)

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  4. 4. murphyod 11:34 am 10/20/2011

    @PhillyJimi, unrequited eye contact is not a path to love you are correct. It has to be mutual and then it expresses mutual interest. a beautiful girl getting stared at is not the same as two people feeling a ‘love at first sight’ sort of connection/attraction, you are correct.

    In frequently referenced studies by Argyle and Dean, the normal length of eye contact between two people is usually 3-10 seconds. Anything longer than 10 seconds can be deemed as creepy or intimidating if it is uninvited. Guys should not use eye contact or staring as a way to “pick up chicks.” Attraction between two people can not be forced.

    There is a difference between two people who just met and two people in love sharing eye contact you are correct. That is why I separated the article into two parts, those who have not met/just met versus those already in love. People already in love do behave differently from people who just met. Even different couples in love can differ in the amount of eye contact they give their partner.

    The main point of the article is to show that eye contact is connected to love and its proper use can strengthen the connection and attraction two people feel for one another. =)

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  5. 5. Izzivolving 11:54 am 10/22/2011

    I’d love to know more about the subtleties of this behavior–for example, are there any cross-cultural studies demonstrating the same trends? It’s often difficult to tease apart the cultural and biological underpinnings of a behavior in humans. As far as I’m aware, non-primates mainly use direct gaze as a threatening behavior, if at all. Primates seem to be able to understand the intentionality of eye movements (i.e., can follow one another’s gaze), but I’m not sure that staring into one another’s eyes occurs as a means of social bonding.

    Humans do, of course, use prolonged eye-contact to assert dominance. I wonder if that’s why smiling is so important?

    Interesting article!

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  6. 6. murphyod 9:31 pm 10/23/2011

    @Izzivolving, I am glad you find it as interesting as I do! I have also written on eye contact in general (not necessarily involving romantic love) and eye contact is definitely used in different ways in various cultures across the world. I did not come across any cross-cultural studies while reviewing/researching material for this article but now you may have inspired me to dig a little deeper and see if any exist.

    I have read about non-primates (specifically dogs) seeing direct eye contact as a sign of aggressive/intimidating behavior and finding it threatening. However, in humans, in most cases, eye contact seems to trigger socialization if used properly and in the right context.

    That said, excessive or prolonged eye contact can be used to intimidate others, you are certainly correct.

    A smile can a long way! =)
    Thanks! Look for Part 2 of ‘Learning the Look of Love’ coming soon!

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  7. 7. Izzivolving 8:17 pm 10/25/2011

    @mutphyod I can’t wait!

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  8. 8. murphyod 1:48 pm 10/26/2011

    @Izzivolving, I’m working on it as we speak!!! =) Hopefully will submit by the end of this week/early next week and it should be up shortly after. Part 2 will be on ‘large pupils and love.’ Thank you!

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  9. 9. murphyod 3:00 pm 11/1/2011

    Part 2 is up! In Your Eyes, the Light the Heat, all about the Pupils and Attraction:

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