During conversation, men and women fix their eyes on different things and their gaze is pulled away by different types of distractions, finds a new study that examines how men and women focus.

Researchers at the University of Southern California studied 34 participants as they watched videos of people being interviewed. Distractions such as pedestrians, bicycles and cars passed in the background within the video frame.

The researchers tracked the movement of the participants’ pupils as they looked at the screen, and found that men, when focused on the person being interviewed, fixed their eyes on the speaker’s mouth. They were most likely to be distracted by conspicuous movement behind the interview subjects.

Meanwhile, women altered their gaze between the speaker’s eyes and body and they were more likely to be distracted by other people entering the video frame.

Why do these sex differences in attention occur? The study’s authors point to previous research showing that women might have a leg up on men when it comes to decoding nonverbal communication.

“If women are more able to decode nonverbal cues, then fixating [on] regions outside the mouth would yield more information about the speaker for women than men,” the researchers wrote in a paper in the journal Vision Research.

And the difference in what distracted the subjects might indicate that men and women have different subconscious priorities when staying aware of their surroundings.

“Our current explanation is that women rely more on features relating to the social nature of the scene to direct attention, whereas men rely more on motion features,” the researchers wrote.

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