Gaydar Is Real
...and you might have it
Can you detect sexual orientation just by looking at someone’s face? A study released yesterday says there’s a good chance you can. Students from University of Washington were able to distinguish accurately, more often than not, between gay and straight people after looking at a Facebook profile photo for less than a second.
We humanoids have some pretty impressive powers of perception and detection. Malcolm Gladwell makes hay of “rapid cognition” in his best-seller Blink, but the snap judgments Gladwell discusses are typically built on a great deal more information than a lone Facebook shot reveals. In this study conducted by psychology researchers from UW and Cornell, 196 people were shown black-and-white photographs of faces — just faces, with the hair cropped out — for 40 to 50 milliseconds, which is under one second per image. With above-chance accuracy, the students were able to make rapid and intuitive judgments of sexual orientation. (You can download the entire study as published by the Public Library of Science here.)
“The face is assumed to reflect experiences,” the researchers said. Perhaps women’s faces reflect more than men’s, too, as lesbians were accurately detected more often than gay men, suggesting that women’s sexual orientation is more obvious than men’s. But how we read faces — how we have the capability to detect experiences —is still anyone’s guess.
Notably, the study subjects were all college students. Would subjects of the same age who weren’t in college, where a student body is made up of a cultural, ethnic, and geographic mix, be as able to detect a gay man or woman? Can you detect what's gay about this pic of Rick Santorum? Would older subjects guess sexual orientation as accurately? Certainly people weren’t always so keen; nobody picked up on Rock Hudson. But with gay culture barely on the popular radar back then, perhaps gaydar technology was yet to be developed.
A big part of the study also involved turning the trimmed black-and-white photos upside down. The fact that subjects had a harder time distinguishing gay from straight faces when the images were inverted — though they still guessed accurately more than 50% of the time — told researchers that people rely not only on individual features but on the relationship between facial features when making a quick judgment. Apparently “configural processing” improves gaydar though sexual orientation can be inferred from individual features alone. According to the study, cues about sexual orientation seem to come specifically from the mouth and eye areas. So either we’re giving away our preferences only in those two areas, or everyone has a bisexual nose. Tough to say.
Like most scientists, the researchers won’t jump to conclusions as rapidly as the general public will; the study’s deductions are drawn exclusively from the photo method used, without assumptions about the “unexplored question” of whether or not accurate snap judgments occur in real-life settings.
In the Discussion section concluding the study, the researchers say:
“…It would appear that minority sexual orientation is not the concealed stigma that many argue it is. Indeed, the need to protect gay people from discrimination would seem increasingly urgent to the extent that minority sexual orientation is tacitly inferred from aspects of personal appearance that are routinely available for inspection (e.g., faces).”
In non-geek speak: The fact that we may be able to detect whether someone is gay just by looking at his or her face signals a need to increase acceptance. It’d be interesting to conduct a study to see whether intolerance can be recognized on a face, or within oneself.
Illustration: From Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation by Joshua A. Tabak1*, Vivian Zayas2
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Consider the implications of the argument, if this is something that is part of you, there are two choices:
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