In a new study, researchers assert that the notion of using one’s “gaydar” — the purported ability to infer whether people are gay or straight based on their appearance — is an inaccurate and harmful form of stereotyping.
“Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,” said lead author Dr. William Cox, an assistant scientist in the Department of Psychology.
“But if you’re not calling it ‘stereotyping,’ if you’re giving it this other label and camouflaging it as ‘gaydar,’ it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.”
The term gaydar seemed to get a scientific boost from a 2008 study that suggested that people could accurately guess someone’s sexual orientation based on photographs of their faces.
In the new paper published in the Journal of Sex Research, however, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison challenge what they call “the gaydar myth.”
The researchers questioned the validity of the previous research, pointing out differences in the quality of the photos used for the gay and straight people featured in the study.
For example, the gay men and lesbians had higher quality pictures than their straight counterparts, according to Cox’s studies. When researchers controlled for differences in photo quality, participants were unable to tell who was gay or straight.
Another reason for people’s misjudgments of sexual orientation, Cox said, is that such a small percentage of the population — five percent or less — is gay.
“Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time. Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts. So, even in this extreme example, people who rely on pink shirts as a stereotypic cue to assume men are gay will be wrong two-thirds of the time,” Cox said.
Cox authored the paper with Drs. Patricia Devine and Janet Hyde and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Alyssa Bischmann.
In one of the experiments, Cox and his team manipulated what participants understood about gaydar by providing different explanations of gaydar for three groups. The researchers told one group that gaydar is real, told another that gaydar is stereotyping, and did not define gaydar for the third group.
The participants who were told that gaydar is real stereotyped far more often than the other two groups. This included assuming that men were gay based on the stereotypic cues, such as “he likes shopping.”
“If you tell people they have gaydar, it legitimizes the use of those stereotypes,” said Cox.
That’s harmful, he adds, because stereotypes limit opportunities for members of stereotyped groups, narrowing how we perceive them and promoting prejudice and discrimination, even aggression.
In a 2014, Cox and Devine conducted a study investigating prejudice-based aggression. They asked participants to play a game that involved administering electric shocks to a person in the other room. When the research team implied that the subject in the other room was gay using a stereotypic cue, participants shocked him far more often than when the research team explicitly told them he was gay.
“There was a subset of people who were personally very prejudiced, but they didn’t want other people to think that they were prejudiced,” Cox said. “They tended to express prejudice only when they could get away with it.”
Cox hopes his new findings counteract the gaydar myth and expose it as something more harmful than most people realize.
“Recognizing when a stereotype is activated can help you overcome it and make sure that it doesn’t influence your actions,” Cox said.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison