'Gaydar' automatic and more accurate for women's faces, psychologists find

May 16, 2012

After seeing faces for less than a blink of an eye, college students have accuracy greater than mere chance in judging others' sexual orientation. Their "gaydar" persisted even when they saw the photos upside-down, and gay versus straight judgments were more accurate for women's faces than for men's.

The findings, published May 16 in the open-access online journal , suggest that we unconsciously make and straight distinctions.

"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 ."

Tabak says that our ability to spontaneously assess 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 each of young and women who identified themselves as gay or straight. Concerned that facial hair, glasses, makeup and piercings might provide easy clues, the researchers only used photos of people who did not have such embellishments. They cropped the grayscale photos so that only , 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 . Even when the faces were flipped upside down, participants were 61 percent accurate in telling the two apart.

At 57 percent accuracy, they had a harder time differentiating gay men from straight men. The participants' accuracy slipped to 53 percent – still statistically above chance – when the men's faces appeared upside down.

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.

This may be because participants 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, Tabak suspects. Another possibility is that the difference between gay and straight women is simply more noticeable than the difference between gay and straight men, Tabak said.

He was surprised that participants were above-chance judging sexual orientation based on upside down photos flashed for just 50 milliseconds, about a third the time of an eyeblink.

Don't think you have gaydar? You're not alone. Tabak says that in his experiments there are "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 aptitude in . Tabak speculates 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 versus straight .

Explore further: Study suggests sexual orientation unconsciously affects our impressions of others

More information: The article will be available here: dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036671

Related Stories

Study suggests sexual orientation unconsciously affects our impressions of others

September 2, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Studies by psychologists at the University of Toronto reveal that when it comes to white men, being straight may make you more likable but in the case of black men, gays have a likeability edge.

Psychologists find link between ovulation and women's ability to identify heterosexual men

June 22, 2011
A new study by psychologists at the University of Toronto and Tufts University shows that a woman can more accurately identify a man's sexual orientation when looking at his face, when she is closest to her time of peak ovulation. ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.