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Gaydar Is Real

...and you might have it

By Rich_Maloof May 17, 2012 4:13PM

From Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation by Joshua A. Tabak1*, Vivian Zayas2Can 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

136Comments
Oct 11, 2012 5:02AM
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Jun 13, 2012 1:18PM
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I have to agree with the person who said there are far too many holes in this study to say this proves gaydar. It would say this study ignores social influence in communication and events prior to the judging. The same way people get 'prepped' for saying this springs fall fashion 'must' is the high ride collar, or the ultra shear wool top or something.(Advertising, hordes of 'new' people entering a 'zone'(college campus,?),places where people would make generalized observations, aloud, of peoples appearance, after steady regular reading of Redbook, McCalls, or TeenMag)With the seeming insignificant commentary, people conform to it, and the, in their own opinions of, what category of sexuality that fits. But also with adapting to new environs(nothing to ,specificly, do with 'gay' campus', towns or not),and doing whatever it takes to fit-in with the new peer group(just to survive to start with),including claiming to be or not to be gay.Not to mention, watching porn, and not actually having had their 1st sex experiences, and saying they have, thus 'knowing' their preference. Sounds like juvenile responses, but think again. Many adults are still in this set. Loneliness, stress, masturbation(neither do peer pressure, hazing,  and tricks) do not determine sexual preference. And that's just to start
May 18, 2012 12:03AM
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Funny how we have one person stating that one persons account of choosing to be gay trumps the thousands upon thousands of people telling us that they are born that way.  If you were anywhere close to claim science, you'd go with the number that is statistically higher.  Of course, this world will always be infected with people who choose to stay ignorant on subjects that really should not concern them, that is unless, you are dealing with the subject yourself, and it's time for you to deal with it and come out.
May 17, 2012 11:59PM
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To those who vehemently argue that homosexuality is a choice...

Ever get that feeling that your being pulled into something against your will?  I have.  That's not a good feeling to have; in fact, it is down right SCARY.

What helps (sometimes) is to realize that you're not getting pulling into something, but rather, you're in fact trying to run away from it to begin with. 

Consider the implications of the argument, if this is something that is part of you, there are two choices:

1) Fight a life long battle running away from oneself, be angry and frustrated from the lack of progress, then ultimately lose

2) Accept who you are and lead a well balanced and meaningful life.

I think that option #2 is the Christian thing to do brother.

May 17, 2012 11:54PM
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First off:  This study was of UW students.  UW has a VERY high concentration of homosexuals.  I would expect anyone who goes there (myself included) to have a pretty well-refined gaydar.
Second: were any of the men in any of the shots wearing makeup?
If they were, the guess isn't too hard to discern.
There are a LOT of holes in this study.  First off, take a similar survey at other college campuses where there isn't quite such a large homosexual population and see what the results are.  Then branch out from college (like the article says) and do varying ages.

Some people have it, some don't.  My sister and I have spot-on gaydars - my mother is 100% clueless.
May 17, 2012 11:49PM
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Anti-Gay Marriage Ban is NOT About Hate - Its About Getting People the Help They Need
How many more gay teenagers have to commit suicide before the gay community realizes suicides are primarily from inner trauma, in this case probably emotional trauma in early childhood, not primarily from external forces such as bullying - and for which people need support, resolution, and help. Unfortunately, they aren't getting that needed help in the gay community. So who is to blame?
May 17, 2012 11:49PM
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NOT Born Gay: Homosexuality Caused by Emotional Trauma:
"Like many who struggle with same-sex attractions, the early years of my life were filled with pain and confusion. When I was 8 years old my parents divorced. This single event was the turning point. For the next 12 years my life would be marked by rejection, estrangement, isolation, abuse, insecurity, and fear....What I did not realize for the first half of my life was that my struggle with same-sex attraction WAS BORN OUT OF A LEGITIMATE HUNGER FOR LOVE, AFFIRMATION, IDENTITY, AND SECURITY." (D. Berryessa, ex-gay)
May 17, 2012 11:44PM
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I'm always amazed at the ignorance and vulgarity of people commenting on internet stories. "Oh those horrible homos have found a way to convert more innocents"; "I want to piss a bunch of people I don't even know off, so I'll use the word 'fag' and sit back and laugh at the reaction"; "What a waste doing a study like this."  Get a clue: homosexuality is part of the biological world. It's been proven to exist in 10% of the population of every animal species, including homo sapiens, across the board. "Gaydar" can be ranked right up there with shiny hair and wide hips on girls as a visual instinct for identifying or eliminating potential mates. It's part of evolution and it's fascinating to learn more and more about how we work and survive as a species. Make a real  lifestyle choice and tune in to a science channel for a change.
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