Thursday May 17 2012
Gay or straight? It may show in your face
The Daily Telegraph boldly and erroneously reports that “women really do have a 'gaydar' which allows them to tell someone's sexuality 'in the blink of an eye'”, while the Sun informs us that “most people have a ‘gaydar’”.
This story is based on a study that looked at how accurately people can judge someone’s sexual orientation from their face. In two experiments, researchers investigated how accurately US college students judged whether someone was ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ after quickly glancing at a photo. The research found that students were able correctly to determine sexual orientation slightly more often than could be put down to chance. It found that students were able to identify a woman’s sexuality correctly 65% of the time, and a man’s sexuality correctly 57% of the time. The research suggests that people may unconsciously make judgements about sexual orientation when seeing a face for the first time.
Based on this study, the headline that "most people have a gaydar" is misleading. Limited conclusions can be drawn from this small and highly artificial study as accuracy was only just better than chance. In order to draw firm conclusions, larger studies that include people of different ages and from different backgrounds are required. The type of study used does not consider the influence of other factors that could contribute to how a person makes quick decisions about another person’s sexuality and it is not clear whether quick judgements about a person’s sexuality occur in real life.
It is important to note that guessing another person’s sexuality may be a sensitive area. This study does not explore the consequences of making quick judgements about another person’s sexuality. It does show that a subjective snap judgement of someone’s sexuality based on their appearance has a good chance of being wrong. Making decisions on such snap judgements is ill advised, even if you think you have a great ‘gaydar’.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Washington and Cornell University, US. It was funded by grants from the US Association for Psychological Science, Cornell University’s Einhorn Family Charitable Trust Endowment, the Cognitive Science Program, and the College of Arts and Sciences. The study was published in the peer-reviewed online journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE.
This study was picked up by a variety of papers and online media and most had attention-grabbing headlines like “gaydar exists”. Apart from the overblown headlines, the Daily Mirror and the Sun reported the details of the study accurately. However, both The Daily Telegraph and Metro misleadingly suggest that the research showed women could judge another person’s sexuality better than men. In fact, the research showed that people were better able to judge whether women were gay or straight, not that women were better able to judge sexuality.
What kind of research was this?
This was an observational study that aimed to investigate how people make a judgement about someone’s sexuality based on their face. This was a relatively small study that only investigated the judgements of college students from one US university.
Previous research has indicated that there are two ways in which a person perceives a human face – “featural processing” and “configural processing”:
- featural processing involves looking at facial features such as the nose or eyes
- configural processing involves looking at the relationship between facial features, such as the distance between the eyes
What did the research involve?
Researchers undertook two experiments. In the first experiment, they recruited 24 University of Washington students (19 women) in exchange for extra course credits. The students viewed 96 photos of young adult men and women who identified themselves as gay or straight. The participants categorised each face as either straight or gay as quickly and accurately as possible. The photographs were of “white-looking” faces of people reportedly aged 18–29 gathered from Facebook. They included individuals living in 11 major US cities. Photographs were digitally altered to remove hairstyles so that only faces were visible. Faces with facial hair, make-up, glasses and piercings were excluded so as to limit any potential prejudice. Photos were flashed up on a screen for 50 milliseconds (approximately a third of the time it takes to blink the eye).
In the second experiment, comprising 129 students (92 women and 37 men), participants were randomly assigned to judge faces that were either upright or upside down. This experiment was designed to judge whether ability to read sexual orientation depends on configural processing (the relationship between features).
Results were analysed using statistical methods to determine whether the results were achieved by accurate judgement or whether similar results could have occurred by chance.
What were the basic results?
The main finding of this small study was that students were able to determine sexual orientation from glancing at a photo more often than could be put down to chance. (By chance alone it is assumed that people would be correct 50% of the time, like the toss of a coin.) It found that, in the first experiment students were able to identify the sexuality of women’s faces 65% of the time, while they were correct 57% of the time when viewing men’s faces. In the second experiment, the researchers found that when the picture was glanced at upside down, the success rate was less accurate (61% for women and 53% for men).
The researchers report that the increase in accuracy for judging upright faces suggests that the ability to read sexual orientation from men’s and women’s faces relies on configural face processing (relationships of facial features) as well as featural face processing (facial features). They say the results also indicate that reading sexual orientation from faces of women is easier than from faces of men.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that configural face processing significantly affects a person’s perception of sexual orientation and that sexual orientation is easier to detect in women’s faces than men’s faces.
The lead researcher, Joshua Tabak, is reported as having said that "we were 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". He went on to say that “people of older generations or cultures where homosexuality is not recognised may find it harder to make ‘gaydar’ judgments”.
This small study, carried out in highly artificial conditions, shows that students were able to judge sexuality with greater accuracy than could be put down to chance, and that women’s sexuality was judged more accurately than men’s sexuality. Despite these findings, the study should not be misinterpreted to mean that women are better at accurately judging a person's sexuality than men.
The participants' judgement was only just better than the results that could have been expected to have been achieved by chance and larger studies that include people of different ages and backgrounds are required to verify these results.
It is important to note that, in this study, students were instructed to make forced decisions about a person’s sexuality. It is unclear whether these quick decisions are made in real life situations. In addition, this study does not explore the consequences of making quick judgements about another person’s sexuality.
Guessing another person’s sexuality can be a sensitive area. This study highlights the importance of not making snap decisions based on your own subjective judgement of someone else’s sexuality because of the high chance that you may be wrong.
It is also worth noting the inaccurate reporting in both The Telegraph’s and Metro’s stories on this research. While the Mirror and the Sun also featured exaggerated headlines, their reporters did a better job of presenting the research.
Analysis by Bazian.