Since the 1980s, gaydar has become a common word in the English language. A combination of “gay” and “radar,” Merriam-Webster defines it as “the ability to recognize homosexuals through observation or intuition.” Clearly, the idea is ridiculous (not to mention insulting to gay people). But what if I told you not only that gaydar exists but that it is a scientifically documented phenomenon? Enter one of the weirdest and most fascinating series of studies this blogger has ever seen.
In 2008, Dr. Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto (then a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University) began to investigate the idea of using visual cues to determine someone’s membership to a perceptually ambiguous group (i.e. one without clear physical identifiers, such as religion or sexual orientation). Rule and fellow researchers gathered headshots of individuals and removed hairstyles, piercings, makeup, tattoos, or any other cultural markings. In a series of experiments, they flashed the bare faces for five hundred milliseconds and asked subjects to determine whether their sexual orientation. The results were shocking.
Subjects guessed correctly between sixty and sixty-four percent of the time. While this may seem little better than chance, it is statistically significant, multiple times greater than the margin of error. What’s more, these results have been replicated many times. This raises the question of why—what cues are we subconsciously registering when the faces flash before our eyes? Recall these tests have nothing to do with stereotypes—all cultural indicators were removed from the faces, and photos were displayed for only a fraction of a second.
According to Rule and researchers who have replicated his findings, facial dimensions are the likely factor. Further work has identified certain features and aspects (such as face width-to-height ratio) that appear to be significant in determining sexual orientation. Experimental variants such as presenting faces upside down have suggested features may play a stronger role. (This has to do with featural vs configural face processing, two ways the brain analyses faces. You can read more about it here). Regardless, the evidence is clear—our brains guess sexual orientation on sight.
Rule’s studies have been controversial. As expected, many have misinterpreted his work or attacked it as homophobic. Those involved with the research, however, claim the their studies support LGBT equality. Their findings, they explain, are important to equitable policy and anti-discrimination laws. In light of their work, rules such as the now defunct “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that have people hide their sexual orientation might fail to maintain secrecy from the get-go.
These experiments have explored other perceptually ambiguous groups, such as religions. Variations have found similar identification phenomena with Mormon and non-Mormon individuals.
These are some of the most surprising and fascinating studies I have come across in years. I have passionately argued against using stereotypes to guess sexual orientation, and I am glad the findings do not support them (other studies have found them to be useless indicators). What I find shocking is that our brains are subconsciously registering facial features and guessing others’ sexual orientation. It does bother me that some of the studies appear to use straight and gay as a binary as opposed to a more appropriate spectrum. I would also like to see more research done on the topic before jumping to any larger conclusions. I still feel rather uncomfortable claiming there are physical differences between people of different sexual orientations…though this comes from my beliefs unrelated to science (and I’m not sure this is even appropriate)…
Either way, sound off your thoughts below. Is this fascinating? Offensive? Worrisome? Let me know. You know the drill: please share, like, comment, and subscribe if you also are curious as to whether gaydar is real. Check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday, bro. IT’S FREE!
Comment question of the week
What do you think of the scientific experiments on gaydar?
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