The Science Behind the World's Favorite Spectator Sport: Ogling

The Science Behind the World's Favorite Spectator Sport: Ogling

By Sean Braswell


Because the eyes are the windows to the soul … and sometimes to a dirty mind as well.

By Sean Braswell

Hate to break it to you, but people judge books by their cover all the damn time, and the Book of You is no exception. Check out OZY’s series What’s in a First Impression to delve into the psychology of appearances, and how to hack it.

It turns out Friday’s October surprise wasn’t the first time hot mics have pushed the Trumps into the spotlight over lewd comments. Earlier this year in Indiana, as Melania Trump walked toward the podium at her husband’s victory speech, MSNBC host Chris Matthews ogled her on a hot mic and shared his thoughts with the world: “My God, is that good.” Melania herself later responded to the uproar over Matthews’ sexist remarks — in part by letting him off the hook. “Men will be men,” she told DuJour magazine, insisting, “I’m not only a beauty.”

On the other side of the political aisle, Bill Clinton has recounted the tale of how he met his wife, Hillary, several times during this election season, including to the whole country at the Democratic National Convention in July. One critical element of the story, and one that he fesses up to quite readily, is the role that his incessant ogling played in the power coupling. “I just kept kind of ogling her, and one night in the Yale library,” as Bill put it to a crowd in Iowa in January, “all of the sudden, she closed her law book, walked the entire length of the library, walked to me and said, ‘Look, if you’re going to keep staring at me, and I’m going to keep staring back, we at least ought to know each other’s name.’ ”

Ogling. Leering. The ol’ “once-over.” Those wandering eyes. One’s slack-jawed appreciation for a fellow human specimen. Whatever you call it, humankind’s most enduring spectator sport never seems to go out of fashion. From its role in the Clinton family origin story to the recently uncovered lewd conversation in 2005 between Donald Trump and Billy Bush on an Access Hollywood bus, the part ogling can play in social interactions can range from the romantic to the pernicious. But, as new research suggests, there’s much more to what some psychologists call “attentional adhesion” than men being men — though there’s plenty of that as well. So, to paraphrase Hillary, if we’re going to keep staring at each other, we at least ought to know a little bit more about what we are doing.

The Destructive Power of the Human Gaze

For much of modern human history, staring at others was far from a harmless pastime. In the ancient Greek tradition, Narcissus dies after becoming obsessed with his own reflection. When Orpheus fails to heed the gods’ dictate and looks back at his wife, Eurydice, in Hades, she perishes. And, of course, getting caught ogling the Gorgon Medusa was a good way to become a human statue. In the Christian tradition, lusting with one’s eyes is committing adultery in one’s heart, and self-blinding is thus morally preferable to leering: “If your right eye causes you to sin,” as Jesus puts it in Matthew 5:28, “gouge it out and throw it away.”

Things did not get much easier for not-so-innocent bystanders from there. As Sandra Lindeman Summers chronicles in Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature, throughout medieval and early modern times, “a stare was understood as an act of aggression,” and ogling was a dangerous game, as those who stared directly at others were often accused of casting “the evil eye.” “Protective countermeasures against this danger are abundant and varied,” writes Summers, from “the veiling of women in the Muslim world to “[t]he tilak, the forehead dot worn by many Hindu women, [which] repels envious glances.”

The destructive power of the gaze finds expression again today in the sexual objectification, particularly of women, in Western society. In an oversexed media culture that bombards viewers with images of very attractive people — and where attracting attention to advertisers is a commercial imperative — the eyes become windows to the pocketbook, and ogling as second nature to the consumer as breathing. And the “male gaze,” as the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey first termed it in 1975, still permeates our television and films, often placing the viewer into the perspective of a heterosexual man, leering at the shapely female performers on the screen.


And although we can say “men will be men” and use humor — as with Oscar winner Marion Cotillard’s “Funny or Die” proposal for helping working women be taken more seriously (watch it below) — to try to draw attention to a not-so-sexy issue, the male gaze remains as destructive as ever today, particularly when it comes to the treatment of women in the workplace.

But how much of our rampant ogling is driven by such an objectifying culture, and how much by deeper biological and evolutionary impulses?

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You

In a recent episode of This American Life, the radio program told the story of Griffin Hansbury, a transgender male who used to identify as a woman. Hansbury decided to start taking massive testosterone injections in college and describes how, after just a few injections, his whole world started to change, including a distressing and uncontrollable new reaction to the sight of a woman. “Everything I looked at, everything I touched,” observes Hansbury, “turned to sex.”

As the words of countless singers and poets attest, most people have experienced the sensation of being transfixed by another person’s attractive appearance. “You’re just too good to be true/Can’t take my eyes off of you,” Frankie Valli croons in what amounts to a dreamy, three-minute apology for ogling. Underlying such conscious ogling behavior is a more automatic cognitive phenomenon that psychologists call attentional adhesion. From an evolutionary perspective, being cognitively attuned to potential mates — whose physical attractiveness serves as a sign of genetic fitness — in one’s vicinity would be an important part of finding a suitable mate, and not just one. According to David Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington and author of Out of Eden: Surprising Consequences of Polygamy, natural selection has endowed both sexes, but particularly men, with an interest in sexual relations with more than one partner. “Even in societies that officially endorse monogamy,” Barash tells OZY of ogling’s underpinnings, “men are inclined to consider the possibility — even if purely fanciful imagination — of sexual relations with someone they see.”

Attentional adhesion is a complex cognitive phenomenon, and one that is inevitable to a degree. Most of us are drawn to look at people, particularly attractive ones, around us, and the most ogled piece of human anatomy is the face, which can tell us a great deal of information about another person’s identity, emotions, intentions and nature. An early 2007 study led by Jon Maner, a professor of psychology at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, found that attentional adhesion can depend quite a bit on both the nature of the observer and of the target, with observers of both sexes inclined to fixate on highly attractive targets, but with those most likely to engage in the behavior being those individuals who are already more inclined to have casual sexual partnerships.

It’s not just men who do it.

In a more recent study led by Sarah Gervais, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, researchers used eye-tracking technology to monitor participants’ eye movements as they looked at a series of photographs of college-age women that had been Photoshopped to represent the full spectrum of female body shapes. Again, some of the results are not all that surprising: Participants of both sexes were more likely to exhibit the “objectifying gaze” toward images of women with hourglass-shaped figures and if the perceiver was more “appearance-focused” than “personality-focused” in their own outlook. And compared to female participants, the men tended to fixate more quickly on the woman’s body, and even “personality-focused” men were guilty of differentiating women based on attractiveness.

But such studies have uncovered some less intuitive findings as well about oglers and the ogled. For one thing, it is not just potential mates, but also attractive potential rivals of the same sex, who get checked out. And to a certain extent, all women, regardless of attractiveness, can experience the objectifying gaze from “appearance-focused” observers. It’s also not just men who do it. Gervais and her colleagues argue in the study that their findings are consistent with the claim that “women may internalize the male gaze and self-objectify, which in turn leads them to exhibit the objectifying gaze toward other women.”

Psychological studies focusing exclusively on heterosexual Western college students obviously leave a lot of room for future research and whether such tendencies can be found within other ages, sexual orientations and population groups. Additional individual characteristics and circumstances, from low self-esteem to relationship status to local culture (we’re looking at you, Italians!), could also moderate one’s ogling tendencies, sometimes unconsciously. “We have shown,” Maner tells OZY, “that people in relationships automatically look away from tempting relationship alternatives,” and trying to understand how such self-control works is a controversial and important topic in psychology today.

The research also suggests that initial attentional biases can be overcome and that focusing participants’ attention on the personalities of women can reduce the scope and incidence of the objectifying gaze. “Natural” doesn’t mean “inevitable,” as Barash points out. “It isn’t natural for people to become toilet-trained” either, and yet we have managed to do that and restrain our natural inclinations in countless other ways in order to conform to what society deems acceptable. 

So what can we do to help rein in the destructive potential of ogling on our relationships, workplaces and more?

Putting a Leash on Our Roving Eyes

In a candid interview with Playboy magazine that almost cost him the U.S. presidential election in 1976, candidate Jimmy Carter, a devout, born-again Baptist, made a startling revelation that stole the headlines. “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust,” the peanut farmer from Georgia admitted. “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

Carter may not have heeded Jesus’ call to self-harm, but his willingness to take ownership of his ogling provides one model for addressing the issue. Honesty and self-awareness are good places to start. “So, all you guys and gals out there,” as Gervais writes in Psychology Today, “if you notice your eyes meandering to places they shouldn’t be, remind yourself that you are interacting with another human being with a personality and hopefully your roving eyes will follow suit.”

Others have advocated a containment strategy, particularly for those in relationships. Just as some couples have made “freebie lists” and given passes like the “Ryan Gosling exception” to allow their partners theoretical — and largely celebrity — cheating options, many have also offered their partners a short list of individuals they are allowed to ogle or fantasize about, which, as Barash told NBC News, can serve as a fun and healthy way to handle the subject.

Turning the objectifying gaze on its male practitioners could also have its benefits, or at least help level the playing field. In immodestly proposing a Speedo-wearing requirement for men as in France, my colleague Fiona Zublin notes how in the public pools of Paris in the summer, “men are openly scrutinized for their physique, and treated, as women routinely are, as something to be looked at rather than someone to be listened to.” Still, it’s hard to feel like you are helping the situation when you heed such invitations as the one New York magazine made to its readers during the 2016 Olympics to “join us on the official horndog tour of Rio,” where it showcased a photo slideshow of American male Olympic athletes including “hunky golden retriever Ryan Lochte.” Even the somewhat irredeemable Lochte deserves to be treated as more than a physical specimen, right?

In the end, there’s also no getting around the fact that ogling plays a rather indispensable role in the survival of the species and can, as the Clintons’ story demonstrates, play a positive role in sparking enduring relationships. Perhaps no scene in recent cinema demonstrates the appeal, beauty and risk inherent in ogling than the opening scene of the 2004 film Closer. As Irish singer Damien Rice repeatedly intones, “I can’t take my eyes off of you,” two of the more ogleable people on the planet, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, approach each other on a London sidewalk. It ends badly, but it’s hard not to watch.