Is there actually any science behind the gaydar? Or is it all based on stereotypes?
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by William Cox decided to find. Their results are published in the Journal of Sex Research.
A selection of 55 straight and 50 gay men's faces were paired with a statement that had been rated by a group of volunteers as either gay, neutral or straight. For example: "he likes shopping", "he likes to read," or "he likes football" respectively.
Participants were then asked whether they thought the picture-statement constructs belonged to gay or straight men. It was found that they were much more likely to identify a man as gay if he was paired with a statement judged to be stereotypically gay. The man's face was found to have no influence: participants judged gay men's pictures as gay no more often than they guessed gay for straight men's pictures. This suggests stereotypes play a strong role in how people infer sexual orientation.
Picture quality was found to have an influence on whether the picture-statement constructs were judged to be gay or straight. Before the study started a separate group of people was asked to rate the quality of each picture. The images of gay men were rated as higher quality than the straight men's pictures, with high reliability between the raters (they were in agreement). The fictitious picture-statment pairings were more likely to be judged as gay when a higher-quality picture was used.
While this study suggests sexual orientation cannot be inferred from the face, previous research has indicated that picture-based gaydar might exist. However, the authors say their findings raise the possibility that this may have arisen from differences in the pictures, such as picture quality or hairstyle (factors other studies haven't looked at), rather than any differences in faces themselves.
Finally, the researchers gathered 233 undergraduate students and divided them into three groups. The first group was told that the gaydar is a real phenomenon, the second that it is only a form of stereotyping, and the third – a control group – heard no mention of the term. Next, the groups were given the same photos of men with random statements and told to judge whether they were gay, straight or no idea.
The people who were told the gaydar is real believed in the power of their gaydars more often than any other group, infrequently using the "no idea" option. The group who were told that it was based on stereotypes were more cautious than the control group. It was found that when the researchers legitimized the myth, the participants passed judgment much more freely.
While the study may sound like a bit of harmless fun to some, it underlines a much more serious issue with stereotypes. Sometimes there's a glimmer of truth to them, but more often there isn't. And it looks like "gaydar" is just a myth that somehow justifies the judgement of people as gay or straight.