You’re walking down the street with your friend, and someone coming the other direction catches your eye. In an instant – without even trying – your gaydar goes off. Gaydar, that innate ability to glean another’s sexual orientation from just looking at him or her. But are you right? Do you really know she is gay just from looking at her? And if so, why? What makes gaydar work?
Scientists from Cornell University and the University of Washington have recently published a paper that not only confirms there is gaydar, but also starts to dig into just how it works. The study took Facebook pictures of people that self-identified on their profile as either gay or straight. They cropped everything out of the picture (even their hair) so it was just the person’s face, and then showed them to students at the University of Washington. Subjects were given 50 milliseconds to view the picture, and then had to guess whether the person self-identified as gay or straight. Surprisingly, subjects were correct about 60% of the time. So you are saying to yourself “That’s not overwhelming, being right 60% of the time.” But it is way better than chance. And it was with only 50 milliseconds of viewing (to help the non-metric, divide a second into 1000 equal parts, and then take 50 of those parts). We’re talking pretty fast judgments here.
Next, the researchers did something really funky – they did the experiment again with the same set of pictures (different students), and flipped the faces up-side-down.
Bizarre, I know, but here is why: Other research has shown that when we look at faces right-side up, we pay attention to both the individual features of a face (noting the bright baby-blue of your eyes), and the relationship between these features (just how far apart are those baby-blues). When the face is upside-down, though, we focus only on the individual features. Even with up-side-down faces, subjects guessed sexual orientation better than 50% of the time; but performance was best with right-side-up faces. Meaning that when gaydar is on, it uses both information about your individual facial features, and the relationship of features. It’s not just your baby-blues, but something about how far apart they are from one another, or perhaps from your mouth, that says your gay or straight.
Here is something else that was weird: Subjects were better at predicting the sexual orientation of female faces (correct 64% of the times) than male faces (correct 57% of the time). This is really interesting, because most the students making judgments were also female (19 out of 24). The gaydar bias in judging females faces in this study might come from the fact that each of us is best at gleaning sexual preference from faces of our own gender. That is, perhaps gaydar works best for females judging females, and for males judging males.
I was intrigued by this, and since I happen to know one of the scientists (the Cornell professor and I both got our PhDs from the University of Washington psychology department), I sent an email asking about gender differences. She redirected me to the University of Washington graduate student that was lead author on the study, and he answered my question. In this study there was no difference in performance between female students and male students. But sometimes, researchers can find that the best gaydar is when women are judging men. But not often, and it is only a very, very small improvement.
So what’s the whole take home here? First, gaydar is real (to be honest, this is not the first study to demonstrate that, but it does add to the growing evidence); Gaydar is not that powerful, since it is right about 60% of the time. Gaydar hones in on the relationship amongst the features of our face: Like how tall our face is, and where our mouth and eyes are in our face. Finally, it appears that both males and females are just as good at ‘gaydaring’ people.
But none of it explains the lyrics to Blur’s “Girls & Boys“. Perhaps that will be another experiment for another day…..