After seeing faces for less than a blink of an eye, college students can accurately identify a person’s sexual orientation, according to new research that shows that “gaydar” persisted even when they saw the photos upside down.
The findings, published in the open-access online journal PLoS ONE, suggest that we unconsciously make gay and straight distinctions, which could affect anti-discrimination policies.
“It may be similar to how we don’t have to think about whether someone is a man or a woman or black or white,” said lead author Joshua Tabak, a psychology graduate student at the University of Washington. “This information confronts us in everyday life.”
He claims that this ability to “spontaneously assess” sexual orientation based on observation or instinct conflicts with the assertion that if people just kept their sexual orientation to themselves then no one else would know and discrimination wouldn’t exist, an argument frequently used by opponents of anti-discrimination policies for lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
In the study, 129 college students viewed 96 photos of young adult men and women who identified themselves as gay or straight. Concerned that facial hair, glasses, makeup, and piercings might provide clues, the researchers only used photos of people who did not have these. They also cropped the grayscale photos so that only faces, not hairstyles, were visible.
For women’s faces, participants were 65 percent accurate in telling the difference between gay and straight faces when the photos flashed on a computer screen for 50 milliseconds, about a third of the time of an eyeblink. Even when the faces were flipped upside down, participants were 61 percent accurate in telling the two apart, Tabak reported.
At 57 percent accuracy, they had a harder time differentiating gay men from straight men, he continued. Accuracy slipped to 53 percent — still statistically above chance — when the men’s faces appeared upside down, he added.
The difference in accuracy for men’s and women’s faces was driven by more false alarm errors with men’s faces — that is, a higher rate of mistaking straight men’s faces as gay, he said.
He postulates that this may be because people are more familiar with the concept of gay men than with lesbians, so they may have been more liberal in judging men’s faces as gay. Another possibility is that the difference between gay and straight women is simply more noticeable than the difference between gay and straight men, he said.
Don’t think you have gaydar? You’re not alone. Tabak said that in his experiments there were “always a small number of people with no ability to distinguish gay and straight faces.”
It’s unclear why some have better gaydar than others, since studies have only tested this in college students, he said. He speculated that “people from older generations or different cultures who may not have grown up knowing they were interacting with gay people” may be less accurate in making gay vs. straight judgments.
Source: University of Washington