Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gaydar: A Scientific Approach

I've been hearing about some studies recently on various podcasts and news outlets and decided to look them up and see what they were all about. Studies about how people perceive other people are, in my opinion, interesting if often difficult to quantify. Perception, in an evolutionary and/or social context, can be very useful in informing an individual about potential enemies, friends, or mates. The topic of today's post focuses on the latter.

There has been some recent evidence that people are capable of extracting information from nonverbal behaviors and the appearance of other people. The most important social cues are those from the face. Think about it. We recognize faces more accurately than we do most other parts of the body. We can also classify individuals into groups just by looking at their faces. With just a glimpse we can tell identity, emotional states, sex, age, race, etc.

Today's post looks at an article recently published in Psychological Science concerning the perceptions of women to the sexual orientation of men. Studies have shown that gay men tend to make more accurate judgements of sexual orientation than do straight men. This may be due to in-group effects of perception and memory. Similar studies have shown that women tend to be better judges of nonverbal behavior than men are, and that extroverts are better judges of peoples' traits than are introverts. How can we boil this down to a biological, mechanistic explanation? How about fertility? Women can categorize male faces faster than female faces at higher periods of fertility. Also, when they are nearer ovulation, they rate masculinized faces and body gaits as more attractive. Conversely, lesbian women categorize female faces faster than male faces at periods of higher fertility. Today's paper takes a look at women's accuracy in judging male sexual orientation during various points in their fertility cycle as it potentially has sexual relevance. To test this the researchers broke their study down into three parts:

Study 1:
This first study hypothesized that women nearer to peak ovulation would be more accurate in judging male faces. Participants included heterosexual women who were not using any contraceptive medications and who reported regular cycles. They presented these participants with photographs of gay and straight men and asked them to judge sexual orientation. The women were then asked questions to judge where in their cycle they were currently at. The results showed that the women's accuracy was significantly greater the closer they were to peak ovulation. Perhaps this is because a woman's success in conceiving is greater the nearer she is to peak ovulation, and therefore she needs to have greater accuracy in identifying a suitable mate for reproductive success.

Study 2:
The procedures for this study were identical to those in Study 1 with the exception that the participants viewed the faces of 100 lesbian and 100 straight women and asked to judge sexual orientation. The hypothesis here being that ovulation would not affect the categorization of sexually irrelevant women's faces. The results showed that the women's accuracy was not related to their fertility when they judged these other women. Based on this it appears that the link between fertility and accuracy only applies to men. This is consistent with the reproductive success hypothesis suggested in Study 1.

Study 3:
This study used experimental manipulation to examine women's accuracy in judging sexual orientation. To do this they compared the judgements of "women primed with a mating goal" with the judgements of "nonprimed control" women presented with male faces and female faces. What is the first thing you think of when yu read that sentence? Me? It's how do you prime a woman with a mating goal? First, get your mind out of the gutter please. The researchers had the women read a story which "described a romantic encounter." Ok, so I didn't actually look up the story they used but I'm picturing that typical bodice-ripping poolside paperback that so many women are apt to read. Anyway, after reading the story the women were asked to judge faces. The results showed that these primed women were significantly more accurate in judging men's sexual orientations than women who had not been primed. However, this priming had no effect on the accuracy of the judgments of women's sexual orientations.

Overall, these studies suggest that "a disposition toward mating increases heterosexual women's accuracy in detecting the sexual orientation of members of the opposite sex." Basically, hitting on a gay man gets a straight woman nowhere so her gaydar needs to be accurate for her to find an appropriate mate.

Here's the paper:
Rule, Nicholas O. et al. (2011) Mating interest improves women's accuracy in judging male sexual orientation. Psychological Science: 22(7), 881-886. (DOI: 10.1177/0956797611412394)

For additional information on perceptions take a look at the research and publication list of the first author of this paper:

(image from


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