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Is 'gaydar' scientifically proven?

Cubans march along Prado Boulevard in Havana, on June 28, 2011, to celebrate the Gay Pride Day.
Cubans march along Prado Boulevard in Havana, on June 28, 2011, to celebrate the Gay Pride Day.

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How much can you tell about a person just from looking at him or her? Usually, you might be able to decipher race or age. What about sexual orientation?

A new study from the University of Washington found that people may already have so-called "gaydar." The paper, published in the scientific journal PLoS One, said that when people are making quick snap judgments of another's sexual orientation, they are above chance accuracy.

Researchers showed participants from the school a series of straight and gay faces on a computer. The faces were standardized, grayscale, without hair, facial decoration or alterations, or other controllable variables that could sway a subject's decision making, and each image was only allotted 50 milliseconds of screen time.

"You just have to use your gut instinct to judge each person's sexual orientation as straight or gay," the study's co-author Joshua Tabak said. "Fifty milliseconds is 1/20th of a second. It's really fast. You know you're seeing a face, you don't feel like you know much else."

The research not only found that subjects were able to correctly guess a person's sexual orientation more often than not, it showed that people more accurately judged a woman's sexual orientation than a man's. Tabak said the research team was surprised by that.

"We didn't really have a strong prediction about whether or not people would be better at guessing men's versus women's sexual orientations, but we thought that if anything, people might be more accurate judging men's sexual orientation, because in the media and popular culture, the concept 'gay man' is so much more prevalent than the concept 'lesbian' or 'gay woman,'" he recalled.

What happened was that participants made more false alarm errors with men. That means they labeled a straight person's face as gay incorrectly more often with men's faces than women's faces.

"There may actually be an ironic effect here, where, by seeing gay men more frequently than we know we're seeing lesbians, and being a little more familiar with that concept 'gay man,' we may just be more comfortable labeling men's faces as gay, even though that actually leads us to be more inaccurate overall," Tabak continued.

Tabak said that "gaydar" may be an evolutionary trait. "You could imagine, that if you are looking for a sexual partner or a romantic companion, it's probably beneficial to have developed an ability to distinguish people who are going to be receptive to advances from someone of your gender, versus people who are probably not," he explained.

But he asserted that any implications of the study that explain why we have the ability to sense sexual orientation is pure speculation.

"There's no need to actually go as far as to argue that this is based in evolution, this is how we evolved. This could be totally learned, just by going through life and seeing faces that belong to gay people, seeing faces that belong to straight people," he said.


Joshua Tabak is a doctoral student at the University of Washington, who co-authored a recent study on the phenomenon known as gaydar.