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Culture & Society

Gay or Straight?

Do some cultures have better "gaydar" than others?

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.

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