Most people can recognize the sexual orientation of someone just by looking at his or her face, according to a ground-breaking study. The survey released by the University of Washington found that college students could detect sexual orientation at a better rate than chance just by looking at a photo of a face.
The gaydar of the student participants proved proficient in judging both male and female faces, which flashed for 50 milliseconds on a screen. The successful rate of response didn’t change much even for inverted photos.
“(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,” said lead author Joshua Tabak, in the online journal PLoS ONE. “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 had 129 participants view 96 photos of young men and women. Half of the photos were of people who self-identified as gay. The images were cropped so that hairstyles weren’t visible and all makeup, glasses and piercings were removed.
For women’s faces, participants were 65 percent accurate in guessing sexual orientation. For men’s faces, the accuracy was 57 percent, which is statistically better than mere chance guessing. These accurate responses continued, though at a slightly diminished rate, when the faces were inverted.
“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,” Tabak said. “But the reason accuracy was lower for men’s faces was that there were more false alarms: incorrectly labeling 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 labeling a man’s face as gay than a woman’s.”