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Our ‘gaydar’ seems to be working well … but why?

In the last few years, several laboratory studies have shown that, to some extent, we can tell whether someone is gay or straight, just by glimpsing their face. When asked to categorise male and female…

A new study has shown better-than-chance recognition of gay people by participants. Official U.S. Navy Imagery

In the last few years, several laboratory studies have shown that, to some extent, we can tell whether someone is gay or straight, just by glimpsing their face.

When asked to categorise male and female facial photos as “gay” or “straight”, participants have consistently performed at better than chance (though nowhere near perfect).

And a new study, published today in PLoS One by psychologist Joshua A. Tabak and colleagues, is shedding light on how this “snap judgement” occurs.

Could it be that participants simply pick up on boyish hairstyles, or meticulously manicured facial hair, or flamboyant eyewear choices?

While these might be hints in real-life interactions, any such cues are removed from the photos used in these carefully controlled studies.

Subjects are generally presented with black-and-white images of faces with no adornments or facial hair, and with all head hair chopped out of the picture.

Several studies have even shown that the above-chance performance still holds when participants only see each photo for one-twentieth of a second. That’s literally a click of the fingers!

As mentioned, the PLoS study by Tabak and colleagues focuses on how we make these amazing snap judgements.

Specifically, the researchers set out to discover if we make these judgements using facial features in and of themselves (“featural face processing”) or if we rely on the configuration of those facial features – that is, how the features fit together (“configural face processing”).

To investigate this, they made use of a phenomenon that face-perception researchers discovered some time ago: presenting faces upside-down has little or no effect on processing of featural cues but severely disrupts processing of configural cues.

(a) Example female face and backward mask (Experiments 1 and 2) and example male face and backward mask (Experiment 1); (b) lightened male face and backward mask (upside-down; Experiment 2). PLoS One

Tabak and colleagues tested to see if participants could still categorise faces as gay or straight at above chance if those faces were upside down. They also tested to see whether performance is worse when judging faces upside-down vs right-way-up.

For this study, they again used black-and-white facial photos with no adornments or facial hair, with the head hair cut off in Photoshop, and again they presented the photos for only a twentieth of a second.

Remarkably, even when faces were presented upside down, participants still categorised them as gay or straight better than chance. This shows the participants could perceive sexual orientation from featural cues alone.

That said, they did perform somewhat worse with the upside-down faces than the right-way-up faces, showing that the configuration of the faces also helped their judgements.

Interestingly, the researchers found that both men and women judged the sexual orientation of female faces more accurately than that of male faces, both when rating faces right-way-up and upside-down.

This is opposite to what one might expect, given that participants likely have more lifetime exposure to gay men than lesbian women. This is because the prevalence of homosexuality is higher in men than women.

What the authors don’t discuss, and what I find even more interesting than how we can make snap judgements of sexual orientation, is the question of why we have this ability in the first place.

Have we simply formed a learned association between facial characteristics and sexual orientation by repeated exposure to self-identified gay people and certain types of facial characteristics they tend to have (e.g. sex-atypical characteristics)?

Or could we have evolved a mechanism to detect gay people, since those with such a mechanism might have had the evolutionary advantage of wasting less time and effort pursuing reproductively less-fruitful mating options?

Both mechanisms seem reasonably plausible, and both could be true. Perhaps testing participants from cultures with little or no exposure to open homosexuality might shed light on these questions.

Join the conversation

40 Comments sorted by

  1. Stewart Lancaster

    Tutor/Associate Lecturer

    A same-sex orientation is no barrier to reproduction as the men who are opposite sex married with children and who have same-sex relations outside of those marriages attest!

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    1. Paul Fourie

      logged in via email @yahoo.com

      In reply to Stewart Lancaster

      Yep, a natural abhorrence to this deviant behaviour also needs to be explored, across all cultures.

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      An eminent immunologist from either UNSW and/or Prince of Wales hospital used to write a column for a local paper in Randwick. One of his hobby-horses was that studies have shown that gay men have more children than average. I don't know/care if this is true, but he had something of a bee in his bonnet about it and used to return to this meme frequently - otherwise his columns seemed fairly genial. His conclusion, crudely reduced (but not reduced much), was that gay men had a higher sex drive than straight men and just more sex partners in general.

      I am not endorsing that view, just reporting it.

      However, it seems to me that the number of offspring that gay men have might depend on the sort of society they find themselves in. And a conclusion of fewer children that holds today, might not always have held

      Perhaps the study above should have categorised the photos into twinks and bears first ? (Thank you, Mr Ashby)

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  2. Damian Frank

    Researcher in Flavour and Sensory Science at CSIRO

    Last paragraph somewhat problematic. Obviously supposes that gays don't successfully breed (see Stewart's Comment), when they clearly can and do when they want to. Very heterosexist to suggest that heteros use their Gaydar to filter out less-fruitful mating options ... gays use their gaydars just as much to identify others from their group, filter out boring straight males (or females) who will not be interested in them and to avoid ending up in an unhappy marriage or in mutually unpleasant misunderstandings…

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    1. Brendan Zietsch

      Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to Damian Frank

      Of course I agree that homosexuals are very productive and valuable members of society and families, but that doesn’t argue against my suggestion that pursuing a homosexual as a mate has probably been (on average) less-reproductively fruitful than pursuing a heterosexual as a mate.

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    2. Damian Frank

      Researcher in Flavour and Sensory Science at CSIRO

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Isn't that a no-brainer? I just think it is a bit simplistic to think that our need to breed is the main reason why we might have a very highly evolved capacity to discern things like people's sexuality from their faces. We are very complex social creatures and I'm sure we use many cues to make quick decisions about strangers and potential mates. There is also another word for it which is stereotyping and perhaps even discriminating. Consider this scenario....
      There are many straight men with non-viable…

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    3. Brendan Zietsch

      Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to Damian Frank

      To the extent that our minds are the product of evolution by natural selection, they result from selective pressures in the past, over many, many generations. Turkey basters and sperm donors are not relevant because they are very recent phenomena.

      Anyhow, in the paragraph you’re referring to, I’m merely asking a question and proposing two of many speculative possibilities – I certainly don't argue that I know the answer.

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    4. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Damian Frank

      Hi Brendan,

      There's evidence that our evolution is driven more than just interactions between mates e.g. the "grandmother effect", described here recently suggests that the survival of grandmothers is a driving force in child survival.
      If grandmothers, why not gays?

      Then again, there's a lot more to successful human reproduction than breeding - for example social/interpresonal relationships. Discerning whether someone is gay might have more to do with bonding a clan than choosing whom to take a roll in the hay with.

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    5. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Yes but there are cultural analogues for turkey basters and sperm donors in many ancient cultures. For example, getting knocked up by your husband's brother (find me a gay king whose queen didn't do that!) and having exclusively homosexual relationships except for child-bearing (Spartan marriages).

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  3. Ruth Jackson

    psychologist

    There might be some problematic strands here: Words like "people...." assume universality, but probably these research subjects were not a mix of races and cultures commensurate with the world's population. I see no reason to assume that everyone, everywhere, would respond as these subjects have.
    And, since subjects are choosing "gay" vs "not-gay" apparently, there's a 50-50 chance of getting it "correct" just on the basis of random guessing.

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    1. Brendan Zietsch

      Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to Ruth Jackson

      Another recent study suggests that the ability is found across cultures, using American, Japanese, and Spanish samples, though there was some cross-cultural variability in speed and accuracy. As I say in my article, though, it would be interesting to see if the effect is also found in cultures with little or no exposure to openly homosexual persons.

      Regarding your comment about 50-50 chance of getting it correct, the authors accounted for that of course, which is why they and I use the term ‘above-chance’. However, an interesting question is whether the ability to categorise ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ faces above-chance when explicitly asked to do so transfers into everyday life when we are not specifically trying to categorise others in this way and when the base-rate of homosexuals is very low.

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    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Cultures with no interest in creating false dichotomous categories between sexual orientations would be a good sample to use. They might not even see the faces as male or female.

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  4. Lisa Ann Kelly

    retired

    It has been my experience that men and women tend to think "prettier," more handsome men are gay. I have always had VERY good-looking mates, and each one of them would complain to me about gay guys hitting on them. Or even women sometimes asking them if they were gay. Does this mean gay men can't discern which men are straight? ( More likely, it is wishful thinking on their part.) Does it mean women think because a hetero male isn't attracted to them, that he is gay?

    I know I used to like a lot of men I thought were straight and was disappointed later on to find out they were gay. Does this mean I don't have "gaydar?"

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Lisa Ann Kelly

      That's a cultural myth.

      I can assure you that gay guys are just as dumb and ugly as the cavemen that wander the pubs to club women over the head with roofies.

      Same with lesbians. Some are mega gorgeous, you know. They're not all bull dykes.

      As for the bisexuals, equally as boring.

      Transgender people? Boring.

      Intersex people? Also boring.

      Know those homophobes though, they're really interesting. I would like to see some research on if we can recognise a homophobe within 50ms without any Westboro signage attached.

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    2. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Sorry, long history of dealing with ridiculous comments about gay people on the internet.

      In answer to your question: yes, people have trouble telling the sexuality of others. In general. People also struggle to recognise their own sexuality. Trying to fit ourselves in square holes, when we're all actually round pegs is probably part of the issue.

      On the other hand, mothers seem to know their kids are gay before they do. This is more of an anecdotal type observation. But I wonder if it is true. Mums have uncanny abilities sometimes.

      Same with bullies. Has anyone ever asked why it is that gay kids who haven't come out yet get bullied for being gay seem to experience this even before they know for sure that they are? Do bullies have stronger gaydar than straights? Do gays recognise bullies quicker than non gays?

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  5. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    What is this comment about respective numbers of gay men and women? Is there real data on that? It is not obvious from my observations.

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    1. Brendan Zietsch

      Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to John Harland

      Yes, plenty of data on that - any study employing a community-based sample will have descriptives somewhere in the results, where it will show that homosexual men are considerably more common than homosexual women.

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    2. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to John Harland

      I understand that people have conducted research... but it's not borne out by my local area. Of gay people in the area that I know well enough to talk to (and be sure they ARE gay), women outnumber men about 5 to 1.

      Statistical blip or geographic anomaly? No idea...

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    3. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Please cite specific references. the ratio doesn't accord even remotely with the community in which I live.

      In what communities was the data gathered?

      The data would need a definition of how it defined a "homosexual person", too, because that is not self-evident. A homosexual act is one thing but a homosexual person is quite another construct.

      That underlines a problem with the reserch described in the article. By whose definition were the subjects "Gay" or "straight"? What kind of random selection was applied to both the "gay" and "straight" subjects of the photos?

      Indeed, were the photos intentionally chosen as stereotypes of
      each sexual identification?

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    4. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Andrew Hassell

      Lorna could teach seniors at a Catholic girls high school.

      Oh come on, why not, if we're going stereotype based on suburb....

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    5. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Neither Leichardt nor girls' school of any denomination :)

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    6. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to John Harland

      You too John?

      As I said above, lesbians outnumber gays about 5-1 hereabouts.

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    7. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Must be co-ed. Catholic boys are a turn off for the modern tike.

      -see what I did there- made a terrible pun.

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    8. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      Still not right! Not an institution of any sort, just a geographical area.

      John Harland says the same thing below - maybe we're unwittingly living in the same community (John do you know any lesbian bike mechanics?).

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  6. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    I've had to read this article and following conversation several times just to make sure that it wasn't a practical joke associated with anti-homophobia day. The question "but why?" does our "gaydar" work is chilling, to say the least, as is the very idea of researching how accurately anyone imagines that they can identify a gay person even, as the linked research article suggests, "at 50 metres".

    The last time that anyone cared to clearly identify gays they used coloured triangles. Remember…

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    1. Brendan Zietsch

      Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Queensland

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I’m afraid I don’t understand all of your post, but to answer your main question, ” In short - can someone explain this interest in the identification of gays to me?” : I think the interest in this line of investigation is simply that the phenomenon is intriguing and surprising (that participants can distinguish gay from straight faces above chance) – studying it might shed light on aspects of our perception and psychology. The interest is not in actually identifying homosexual persons – while above-chance, the our ability to distinguish ‘gay’ from ‘straight’ just by looking at someone is very unreliable, so as you say, best just to ask in the real world.

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    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Brendan, you write "...the interest is not in actually identifying homosexual persons..." but the entire article is about just that.

      It appears to me that this whole area of research, sexual profiling, is puddling around in some very socially unsavoury and murky waters. The history of Lombroso's criminal anthropology is one example of science gone bad in this direction.

      Lending a gloss of scientific validity to popular misconceptions and prejudices is a dangerous practice. The idea, for example…

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    3. Edward Reynolds

      PhD Student in Communication and Social Interaction at University of Queensland

      In reply to Brendan Zietsch

      Anthony, the problem is that these experiments illustrate that people can, and do, pick sexuality (on a binary scale) just from the face.
      The problem, as you insightfully point out, is that this can be then be used to further marginalise said group. Diana eades work on aboriginal english in the courtroom is case in point. Lawyers read her book and would willfully manipulate cultural norms to bully aboriginal witnesses.

      I think you're right that the social implications of this research is ill thought out.
      Which I think is why the original authors did NOT postulate evolutionary, or biological, bases for Gaydar. To suggest such goes straight back to to eighteenth century notions of biological bases of groups.
      There are many simplistic dualisms in here, such that they muddy already murky ethical waters.

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    4. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Edward Reynolds

      Edward, yes, it appears to be the case that some people make a "better than chance" identification of sexual preference by face. Two things, though: how significant is "better than chance" and, again, what assumptions are being made in the identification of the face of a person as "same sex attracted"? What do the researchers mean by this?

      I think what may be going on here is that technology is leading research. In the same way that Lombroso's "criminal anthropology" depended on and in fact developed out of the widespread availability of photography I think that the current upsurge in attempts to identify behavioural characteristics by facial features more than likely derives the development and availability of new facial recognition technology. That, and the very great interest that the US and western security agencies now have in such technology post 9/11.

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    5. Edward Reynolds

      PhD Student in Communication and Social Interaction at University of Queensland

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I couldn't agree more that Technology leading research can lead to ill-considered social outcomes. As you say this has precisely that risk.
      The whole facial recognition Fad in technology, and technologising solutions, drove me away from professional security.
      We need to deconstruct the simplistic assumptions about sexuality, identity and behaviour that these studies rest on. This technology can be used well, but there is basic social science that we need to do first.

      Better than chance…

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  8. Edward Reynolds

    PhD Student in Communication and Social Interaction at University of Queensland

    Both you and the researchers seem to be taking for granted that micro-gestural features of the face (lip holds, eyebrow furrows, eye movements and smile movements) are universal and biological.
    Recent work (published and discussed here) illustrated that Ekmans research on the universiality of facial gesture is NOT universal.
    Thus, as a product of both culture and biology (each informing the other) we can suppose that there may be some (sub)cultural elements to learn't facial gesture. Aka a 'gay…

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Edward Reynolds

      1. That would suggest that the research cited in this article doesn't reflect a universal human gaydar, but rather the recognition of people who happen to use micro-expressions that match the sub-culture of gay people in the broader culture of the participants.
      2. The sub-culture component probably reflects a broader culture of marginalisation. People make signs and gestures for identity in general but the sub-cultural ones would have been discrete enough for two people 'in the know' to recognise…

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    2. John Harland

      bicycle technician

      In reply to Emma Anderson

      In my experience one can pick where in Ireland a man comes from by how he tilts his head in greeting. I have identified what city in Indonesia a person came from through the specific way she made the hand gesture of negation.

      In each case we have not just natiional differences in body language but very specific dialects.

      Within a culture we can pick up very subtle nuances of body language so it is no surprise that we should be better than random at picking up somthing of people's sexuality, along with other aspects of their personality, from facial gestures and expessions.

      However the greater the cultural separation, the more difficult that will be to pick those subtleties, including sexuality. I suspect that "gaydar" is highly culturally specific, and just one trivial aspect of the far more advantageous ability to discern mood and personality more generally.

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  9. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    On reflection I think that there is a way to really cut through the unacceptable elements to this thesis. With apologies to the Jewish community, substitute the word "Jewdar" for "gaydar" and see how that feels. Ugly and discriminatory? You bet.

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