updated 6/29/2010 12:56:14 PM ET 2010-06-29T16:56:14

How fast you can judge whether a person of the opposite sex is looking at you depends on how masculine or feminine they look, according to a new study. And there may be an evolutionary advantage to quickly noticing when a hottie is checking you out, the researchers suspect.

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However, since the results are based on laboratory experiments, more research is needed to see whether the findings hold true in the real world.

Psychologists have debated how we determine whether someone else is looking at us or not. One perspective is that people just look at specific geometric points in the face, such as the whites of someone's eyes, without being influenced by the face in general.

However, Benedict Jones of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and his colleagues thought there was more to it. They designed an experiment to see whether a face's masculinity or femininity affected how quickly a viewer could assess the face's gaze.

Twenty volunteers looked at faces with exaggerated or reduced male or female features. The faces had been digitally morphed to look either more or less masculine or feminine.

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As the faces flashed on a computer screen, the volunteer was supposed to hit a key as quickly as possible to indicate whether the face was looking at or away from him or her.

Both women and men reacted more quickly when the face had exaggerated sexual characteristics.

"Women were quickest to classify gaze direction when they were looking at hunky, masculine-looking guys. Guys were quicker when they were looking at pretty, feminine women," Jones said.

Jones speculates this ability to perceive things about attractive people faster may have been useful to early humans. Previous research shows that feminine women and masculine men make the healthiest mates.

"There's likely to be quite a big advantage to detecting when a particularly good potential mate's looking at you," Jones said. "If I'm in a bar and there's a pretty woman looking at me — if I wasn't married — I would want to catch her eye before someone else did."

The results, announced this week, were published May 5 in the journal Psychological Science.

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