Examples of the photos shown to students
A study has confirmed that people are often able to judge other people’s sexual orientation just by looking at photos of their faces.
This remained true even when the participants in the study were shown the images for less than a blink of an eye, and even when they saw the photos upside-down.
The findings, published this week in the open-access online journal PLoS ONE, suggest that we unconsciously make gay 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 everyday life.”
In the study, 129 college students viewed 96 photos each of young adult men and women who identified themselves as gay or straight.
Concerned that hair, glasses, makeup and piercings might provide easy clues, the researchers only used photos of people who did not have such embellishments and cropped the photos so that only faces, not hairstyles, were visible.
For women’s faces, participants were 65 percent accurate in telling the difference between gay and straight women when the photos flashed on a computer screen. Even when the faces were flipped upside down, participants were 61 percent accurate in telling the two apart.
Participants, however, had more difficulty 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.
Tabak 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.
It’s unclear why some have better gaydar than others, since studies have only tested this aptitude in college students.
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 judgments.
Last year, psychologists discovered in another study that a woman’s ability to identify gay men is increased when she is ovulating.