Sample faces from the sexual orientation detection task, in which participants categorized the target face as either gay or straight.
By Misty Harris, Montreal Gazette
A controversial new study suggests people can judge whether someone is gay in less time than it takes to blink.
Reporting Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers found college students could detect sexual orientation, at a rate better than chance, simply by looking at someone. This "gaydar" proved proficient for judging both male and female faces, which flashed for just 50 milliseconds, as well as inverted faces.
"(The images) were so briefly shown, they were grey-scale, and they were turned upside down. Let that sink in for a minute and it's shocking that people could make these judgments so efficiently," says lead author Joshua Tabak, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Washington.
"Now we know it's not enough to look at differences in individual features — like, 'Oh, gay men's eyes look like this, and straight men's eyes look like that.' The relationships between the features are obviously a component."
Tabak and co-author Vivian Zayas, of Cornell University, invited 129 students to view 96 photos of young men and women, half of whom who identified as gay. The images were all cropped such that hairstyles weren't visible, nor were such embellishments as glasses, makeup or piercings.
For women's faces, participants were 65 per cent accurate in judging sexual orientation; for men's faces, accuracy dropped to 57 per cent but was still statistically better than chance. These skills persisted, albeit at a slightly diminished rate, even when the faces were inverted — a novel finding for this area of research.
"Overall, gaydar is more accurate when we're judging women than men, which is a little surprising since the concept of the gay man is so much more prevalent in popular culture," says Tabak.
"But the reason accuracy was lower for men's faces was that there were more false alarms: incorrectly labelling a straight person's face as gay. So maybe it's because we have so much more exposure to the concept of a gay man that we're more liberal in labelling a man's face as gay than a woman's."
Though some may balk at Tabak's conclusion that "gaydar is real," Nicholas Rule — a noted expert on facial judgments at the University of Toronto — says academics have been unearthing evidence for this unconscious skill for more than a decade. He suggests there may be an evolutionary component, with the ability to detect receptive partners proving beneficial to mating.
But even as collective findings in the literature are robust, consistent and cross-cultural, he says they still make many folks uneasy.
"People feel very uncomfortable pointing out differences because they think it means they're bigoted or somehow perpetuating biased beliefs. But that's just not the case," says Rule, Canada Research Chair in Social Perception and Cognition. "It's when you take an approach that acknowledges and accepts diversity that you're really combating prejudice."
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.