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The latest research findings and discoveries from U of T faculty and students

Gay or Straight?

Do some cultures have better “gaydar” than others?

August 9, 2011

People can guess if a man is gay or straight based solely on a photo of his face — and they can do it even if the man is from a different culture than their own, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

The judgments aren’t perfect. But previous research showed that people presented with pictures of men have a better than average chance of sorting them into straight or gay. The new research by Nicholas Rule, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Social Perception and Cognition and is a U of T professor of psychology, shows that the judgments work across cultures.

It turns out that you can learn a lot from a face. People presented with a still photo can make reasonably accurate judgments about some personality traits, such as how outgoing or agreeable the person is. Some studies have found these judgments are accurate across cultures.

Rule and colleagues from Kobe University in Japan and Tufts University in the United States wondered if the ability to judge a face as gay or straight would also work across cultures. So they downloaded pictures of men from Japanese, Spanish and American dating websites and presented the photos to Japanese, Spanish and American people and asked them to guess the men’s sexual orientation.

All three nationalities made guesses at better than chance rates (they were correct from 58 percent to 63 percent of the time), and the culture from which the face was drawn didn’t make any difference to the accuracy of the judgments.

But there were national differences not only in how accurate the judgments were, but also in the way in which guesses were incorrect. Both Japanese and Americans were more likely to classify a gay face as heterosexual, compared with the Spanish.

The Spanish also often guessed wrong, but were just as likely to classify a straight man as gay. The researchers speculate that because the Spanish are more accepting of homosexuality than the other two nationalities they may be more willing to judge someone as gay.

Americans were the most accurate overall in their judgments — 63 percent, compared with 58 percent for the Japanese and Spanish. That may be because they were the quickest at making their guesses. Previous research has shown that snap judgments about faces are more likely to be correct than judgments people deliberate about.

The research will appear in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Reader Comments

# 1
Posted by Ted M BScPhm%201964 on August 31st, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

What does this prove? Does this have anything to do with “human rights” as opposed to the rights of any so-called visible or invisible minority?

# 2
Posted by Marlene Arts%202003 on August 31st, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

If you ask someone if a particular face is straight or gay? Aren’t you setting them up and therefore skewing the results?
Wouldn’t it be more scientific to show someone a bunch of photos and ask what they think is special or unique about them?

# 3
Posted by Anonymous on September 1st, 2011 @ 2:35 am

What is the point of this research? Who is quickest at identifying stereotypes? Can’t you spend your money doing something more productive?

I really do not understand if this study has any benefit to sciences or human rights or pure intellectual curiosity. As previous reader pointed out, by asking people to identify gays or straights, you are skewing your final results.

Also you are mixing people from different cultures who have different attitudes towards sexual roles and fashion sense. Believe me, tight European clothing looks pretty gay to me, but this is just based on North American fashion sense. So it has nothing to do with “being quickest in making guesses”.

Can’t U of T spend money on something else? Like start giving people real scholarship funding (U of T is the lowest in awarding students money) and stopping silly bell curving?

# 4
Posted by Zsu on November 3rd, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

This isn’t about satisfying curiosity or judging someone’s clothes as “too tight,” or whatever. They used faces, and it worked cross-cultures. This study is significant because it shows that there most likely is a biological component to being homosexual, and it’s not a choice. It shows that the hatred that has been shown to homosexuals for decades for being “disgusting” and “vile,” has been misguided. This study is scientific proof that gays are just another type of human and not rebellious misfits.

# 5
Posted by Phillip Ernest BA%202004 on May 2nd, 2012 @ 5:26 am

[This study is scientific proof that gays are just another type of human and not rebellious misfits.]

Wow, thank god we got that straight.

# 6
Posted by LC on February 15th, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

Yes, great, lets find the biological component to being homosexual except for the fact that sexuality is a scale and not a binary of gay or straight. Placing this study on this binary makes it nothing more than a coin toss, not science.

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