Ben Grefsrud / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/12/2007 9:18:26 AM ET 2007-11-12T14:18:26

You’re walking down the street with your significant other when something catches your eye. A seductive mouth. A dazzling head of hair. A spectacular pair of … knees. Slowing your pace, you cast a surreptitious glance at the object of your down-low desire. The glance becomes a stare then slowly graduates to an ogle. Suddenly, everything gets quiet — too quiet — and you realize that your lover is now pointedly staring at you.

Judy McGuire, a dating columnist from Brooklyn, has totally been there.

“One time I was out with some girlfriends and the plan was to meet up with my boyfriend and his buddy at this bar and when my boyfriend walked up, I didn’t even see him because I was staring slack-jawed at his friend,” says McGuire, author of the forthcoming advice book, “How Not to Date.” “The guy was just really good-looking. My boyfriend laughed about it later but at the time, he was like, ‘Judy!’”

According to a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, McGuire was only doing what comes natural.

In a series of experiments on something called “attention adhesion,” a team of psychologists found that every one of the men and women in their study fixated on highly attractive people within the first half second of seeing them and had a harder time pulling their gaze away from good-looking folks than average joes. What’s more, women were just as likely to ogle hotties as men.

“Our research suggests that it’s inevitable to a degree,” says Dr. Jon Maner, assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the study. “People’s eyes are automatically captured by attractive members of the opposite sex although our research also suggests that self-control can take over after that initial attentional bias.”

While the study may be the first scientific proof to back up that old adage, “Hey, I’m married, not dead,” its results may still come as a shock to some, says Dr. David Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of “The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People.”

Just looking
“People buy into this myth of the perfect mate and how once they find them, they won’t have any interest in anyone else, and that’s just wrong,” says Barash. “If they’re a normal healthy human mammal, they’re likely to be attracted to someone else on occasion. It doesn’t mean that their marriage or partnership is doomed. Nor does it mean they have to act on it.”

Barash says being upfront with both yourself and your partner about the fact that “attraction happens” is the best way to deal with it — although that doesn’t mean completely giving in to your inner wolf.

“In the past, I’ve had boyfriends who were real jerks about that stuff, the whole open-mouth, ‘Oh wow!’ and it makes you feel like crap,” says McGuire. “One guy told me Kate Moss was his ideal and I should try to have her body which with my hardy Irish peasant stock would never happen.”

According to Maner, our constant exposure to Kate Moss and her ilk via a stream of 24/7 media is one big thing that’s changed in the world of ogling.

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“The tendency to look at good-looking folks is rooted in our biological history,” he says. “But nowadays, we’re constantly bombarded by highly attractive people — even unrealistically attractive people — and that can have profound consequences both for the way we see ourselves and feel about ourselves and also for our relationships.”

Another possibly new development? Shameless horndoggery.

“We’ve found pretty consistently that the extent to which people find their attention captured by attractive members of the opposite sex really depends upon personality characteristics,” says Maner. “And people who are more sexually promiscuous are much more likely to have their attention captured by attractive members of the opposite sex.”

McGuire says she eventually broke up with her modelizer boyfriend (as well as another guy who asked her for a photo of her sister) and found a more respectful mate.

But fessing up to a fancy, or even a celebrity crush, is not necessarily a bad thing, says Barash.

“You don’t want to ever make your partner feel devalued or inadequate, but being honest about an attraction can desexualize the appeal,” he says. “By sharing the attraction with your partner, it becomes less forbidden.”

‘To-do lists’
This new sharing-is-caring approach may explain why so many couples are compiling “to-do lists”: short lists of people (usually celebrities) that a partner is allowed to fantasize about. Barash says these lists can be a fun and healthy way to broach the attraction issue and may even help stimulate a couple’s sex life. What’s more, they’re a relatively painless way for people to negotiate who is and isn’t off-limits (Scarlett Johansson is OK to ogle, my sister not so much).

“When my husband and I first got together, we each came up with a ‘five freebie list’ like they did on ‘Friends,’” says Nicole Bobbitt, a 31-year-old communications manager from Portland, Ore. “At first, I could only think of four celebrities for my list, then I heard that Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie lives in Portland and told my husband I’d found my fifth. And he was like ‘the people on your list cannot live in the same city as you!’ So I asked if it would be OK if I put his hot friend from college on it and he was like ‘That is not OK!’”

You wanna do who?
Of course, just because it’s your fantasy list doesn’t mean your choices won’t be subject to criticism.

“My husband and I each have Top 10 celebrity lists that change on a yearly basis,” says Kelly Coller, a 36-year-old marketing director, also from Portland. “And I’ve totally debated with him as to why Sophia Loren in her heyday was not on his list and why Gwen Stefani did not have higher positioning. As a result, I put them on my list.”

While the Florida State University attraction study focused solely on heterosexual men and women, Brian Rzepczynski, a psychotherapist and gay love coach from Chicago, says he thinks ogling is more of a deal breaker for straights than for gays.

“Appearance is really important in the gay community,” he says. “And this could be generalizing but I don’t think ogling is as much an issue for gays as it is with heterosexuals. Of course, if you’re sitting in a coffee shop and your partner is scoping out the whole room, that’s tacky. In all relationships, you have to set clear boundaries from the offset. If your partner does something that you don’t like, that’s the best time to talk about it, responsibly and maturely.”

And while 50 years ago, that discussion might involve hitting your husband in the head with your purse, today things are a bit more evolved.

“My wife is a mature person and she’s got a pretty well-developed sense of herself,” says Rob Salkowitz, a 40-year-old writer and consultant from Seattle. “And neither of us really comments on the attractiveness of other people unless it’s within the bounds of good taste. Of course, if we were ever to go on a double date with Johnny Depp and Padma Lakshmi from Top Chef we might be in some dangerous territory, but what are the odds of that?”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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