Gaydar Works (A Bit, On Facebook)

By Neuroskeptic | May 22, 2012 6:28 pm

The media are gleefully reporting a recent paper showing that “gaydar is real” – we can tell who’s gay just by looking: The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation

While it’s a fine paper, I’m afraid that the results really aren’t that exciting.

American undergraduate students were able to classify people as gay or straight with better than chance accuracy, based purely on photos of their face. For male photos, the hit rate was 0.57; for women it was better with an accuracy of 0.65.

However, that’s on a scale where you get 0.50 by flipping a coin. So saying that gaydar is ‘65% accurate’, as almost everyone has, is misleading. Still, the numbers seem solid. The sample sizes were large and the effect was replicated very convincingly in two experiments.

However… this tells us very little about real world “gaydar”, and it wasn’t intended to. There are reasons to think it could underestimate the accuracy:

  • Most importantly – people only saw the pictures for 50 milliseconds each. 1/20th of a second. Followed by a backward mask. That’s right on the threshold of conscious perception, almost ‘subliminal’ but not quite. With longer viewing times, they might have done better.
  • All the faces were black and white photos with the hair and ears cropped out (see above – and I think those two photos from the paper are the authors, although I may be wrong!). Anyone with facial hair, glasses, or any other ‘accessories’ wasn’t used. In the real world, we have that extra information.
  • In real life, we get clues from facial expressions, body language, voice, clothes. You could argue that these are being used (consciously or not) specifically as signals of sexuality, so they don’t count as ‘gaydar’ – but more on that later.

 But it could also overestimate gaydar’s powers:

  • These were photos that people chose for their Facebook profiles. We all know how much effort some people put into that choice. We also know that different photos of the same person can often seem like two different people. Your Facebook pic is probably the most “selected” photo of you in existence. It would be better – but also much harder – to use passport photos.
  • All of the gays in the study were out of the closet: they broadcast their sexuality on Facebook. But lots of gay people don’t do that. Now those cases are probably where ‘gaydar’ is most likely to be of interest to most people, I think; those people might be harder to spot.

As far as I can tell, this study wasn’t intended to “prove that gaydar works”. It was meant to examine how it works, by seeing whether it works very quickly (yes – in 50 ms in some cases). The authors also tested how accuracy was changed by flipping the photos upside down; this reduced accuracy but it was still well above chance.

Ultimately, we need to ask what “gaydar” means and why we find it so interesting.

On a superficial level, it just means being able to sense, from someone’s appearance, if they’re gay. That certainly does ‘work’ – if you see a guy coming out of a gay club in a tight pink Boy George t-shirt then yeah, he’s probably gay. But he’s (effectively) told you so, by being in that club and wearing those clothes, so that’s not very interesting. That’s an extreme case, but clearly people advertise their sexuality (and much else of course) all the time. Gaydar, in a weak sense, is just perception.

I think what makes “gaydar” intriguing is the stronger idea that it can go beneath such adverts. That we can see who’s really gay, whether or not they admit it, even to themselves. If that were possible, then it would seem to mean that homosexuality is part of the essence of some people – in other words, that it’s a biological trait.

So gaydar in a strong sense is risque. It calls to mind un-PC ideas such as physiognomy and would seem to validate various stereotypes which are the stuff of dirty jokes more than polite discussion.

Does gaydar in this strong, exciting sense exist? That’s another question. This study doesn’t tell us.

ResearchBlogging.orgTabak, J., and Zayas, V. (2012). The Roles of Featural and Configural Face Processing in Snap Judgments of Sexual Orientation PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036671

CATEGORIZED UNDER: genes, media, papers
  • Anonymous

    The paper doesn't specify what they mean by “sexual orientation”. Is this a gay/straight classification or did they include bi (and asexual?) targets or ranking on a Kinsey scale?

  • Neuroskeptic

    They excluded bisexuals, and don't mention asexuals.

  • petrossa

    I thought it was already well established it's a biological trait? The dutch neurologist Professor Dick Swaab proved it conclusively years ago if i remember well. Took some real flack for it from the gay community at the time.

    Furthermore it seems to me a good survival mechanism to be able to project you are gay and as such no challenge to the alpha leader.

  • skeptical

    Also posited to be a good survival trait, with some of the polygenic genes going towards 'making someone gay', increasing the attraction of women to men as well…thereby resulting in higher levels of reproduction and ensuring the gene is passed on, even if not through the direct line.

    Whether I actually believe it's simply down to genetics…not really sure :/ And I know the circle-jerk response is to say something on the lines of either 'you think people would choose to be discriminated' and 'if you've ever thought of being gay, then you must be/repressed'…tbh I don't buy either…we spend most of our time telling our kids to do what they want, not what will get them accepted, and I think most people would be lying if they said they had never had any kind of fantasy about something which wasn't true…anyway my jury is out.

  • petrossa

    Swaab, D.F. – Sexual orientation and its basis in brain structure and function. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105: 10273-10274, 2008.

    He dissected many homosexual brains and found the 'homosexual knob'. He first published in the 80's and got dumped on. So here he retries hoping for more openminded times.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    In South Africa-just to take an example- it seems that gang raping of lesbians is not a rare practice.

    Did the authors of that paper -and their academic ethic comittee- never ever heard about suicides of young gays and lesbians after discrimination and violence-even in the USA East and West coasts?

    Outing people sexuality from looking at a facebook photograph doesn't seem such a beautiful idea in that context.

    And unfortunatly, designing a very poor study does not make the media uninterested in reporting it: sex sells and homosexuality even more in a puritan country like the USA

    NB: What escapes me is the interest of such a study and do not try to tell me that it can advance science about the origins of homosexuality -besides the fact that I am not even sure we need that kind of science…

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    I am not taking lightly a that a scientist -and a compatriot of yours- has a hard time to be heard since I know you are able to detect weak studies.

    On the other hand, producing the first atomic bomb was not the work of pseudo-scientits. Those scientists were working under military conditions and it was a political decision-like the decision to kill Iranians physicists to prevent them making an Iranian nuclear weapon.

  • omg

    I can't tell with teens though. There's so many emos around. You get the extreme emo guys who wear more eyeliner than me to One Direction boy band homo-pedo-orgy. Facebook is heresy.

  • petrossa


    Gay being not an issue in the Netherlands, except with the religious fanatics, 'outing' is not an issue. Many public figures from politicians via businesspeople to artists are quite normally openly gay. Male or female.

    Professor Swaab got dumped on because the gaycommunity felt that their assumed uniqueness was reduced to a mere 'abnormality' i.e. a disease.

    Swaab never meant to say it was a disease, he just observed the differences between the male homosexual and heterosexual brain.

    Imho Gayness is only a taboo due to religious indoctrination over the centuries and a ssuch become part of general culture. Although dutch Christianity in general has now accepted the concept, more backward religions such as Islam haven't yet.

    Personally i can spot a gay person immediately. It's a certain way of motor coordination, facial/eye movement that's quite indicative.

    With females it's harder if they are not in male mode. Probably because a female homosexual who is feminine is indistinguishable. In a couple it's always clear which is which.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    I thank you sincerely for your explanations and informations about Pr Swaab difficuklties with some gay activists.Interesting stuff.

    Anyway, I strongly doubt that the authors of the study discussed here worked for an audience restricted to the Netherlands.

  • Becky

    Who the intended audience is is not as important as what useful purpose does this serve to those who may be 'targeted for snap judgement'? What is in fact a ongoing tragedy of murders and suicides in many parts of the world, mentioned by Dr.Ivana Fulli; makes this study more than a little sad really…

  • theambler

    I have no problem with this kind of research. The why's, how's and what's of homosexuality are legitimate objects of study. How can we know what this research will potentially help us prove?

  • petrossa

    Research might indicate if indeed peer judgment lies at the bottom of the various mental issues or the fact of having a mismatched brain is the underlying reason.. Just because things seem intuitive (social pressure causes suicides etc amongst gay people) : doesn't necessarily mean that it's true.

    Evidently the brain gets conflicting data if it has mismatched parts. It stands to reason this has a negative impact on the whole

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    What about using that wonderful and easily available ressource (USA college kids) to work on a radar to spot aspies ?

    Of course you will start with publishing about the existence of such a radar.

    PS: Of course, I remember that you wrote (commenting a previous NS post )against coming out for aspies on the work place in a typical “aspie way”- You wrote with a lot of conviction but based on your own “work success story as an analyst” and your large experience as a forum moderator, that is.(no offense intended)

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    ///Just because things seem intuitive (social pressure causes suicides etc amongst gay people) : doesn't necessarily mean that it's true.///

    1) Gang rapes of lesbians in South Africa-just an example I repeat- is not intuition it is fact.

    As much as I admire South African lesbians living openly their sexuality in South Africa, I find disgusting that the public might be made thinking that they can spot a lesbian on her facebook photograph or whatever.

    2)It will take more than the convition of an intelligent former analyst from the Neterlands (not a putitan country indeed) to convince me that had he been filmed by his college room mate having sex with a girl instead of a boy, Tyler Clementi would not have killed himself jumping in 2010 from the George Washington Bridge (USA) 4 days after his room mate had tweeted “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

    My take on suicide causations, petrossa -regarding physically healthy people -is that we are ignorant and we might forever remain ignorant of the whole picture but trigger might often make the difference between life and death especially for young people.

    Homophobia is still very pregnant and that young man Tyler Clementi had everyright to want his privacy about his being gay-especially with the room mate he had got!

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Theambler 23 May 2012 19:02

    ///I have no problem with this kind of research. The why's, how's and what's of homosexuality are legitimate objects of study. How can we know what this research will potentially help us prove?///

    Festina lente, ambler, never meant that you should be devoid of any ethics and with your line of reasonning – “the friends of the plants” as the marketing of chemicals fertilizers goes- could try anything without a thought for the poorest countries farmers's health because as you wrote: “How can we know what this research will potentially help us prove?”

    May I suggest you change your pseudo for “the birdbrain” without neuroskeptic censuring me ?

  • petrossa


    Incidents are anecdotal. That's not evidence of anything. There is no way to prove causality how sad the individual cases may be.

    Extremes exist, hetero's get gangraped too. That's not a sex crime, that's violence crime. Primates still do it to show some troop member it's place.

    Homophobia exists, sure. Does it directly cause suicide? Not sure.

  • Stuart Brown

    There's lots of interesting work on 'gay' speech: whether there are specific variables (such as how one pronounces '-ing', use of falsetto, overall voice pitch) that can be tied to sexuality.

    What's particularly interesting about these is that, generally, linguistic behaviour is less consciously produced and perceived. Whilst, say, extreme 'camp' speech might be the equivalent of your chap in a Boy George t-shirt, the majority of variables examined are much subtler; speaker and listener may not even be aware that can be cues for sexuality judgments.

    A couple of examples:

    Campbell-Kibler. 2011. Intersecting variables and perceived sexual orientation in men. American Speech 86:52–68. doi:10.1215/00031283-1277510

    Levon. 2011. Teasing apart to bring together: gender and sexuality in variationist research. American Speech 86:69–84. doi:10.1215/00031283-1277519

    Linville. 1998. Acoustic Correlates of Perceived versus Actual Sexual Orientation in Men’s Speech. Folia Phoniatr Logop 50:35–48. doi:10.1159/000021447

    A particularly interesting one, showing that the perceptions can be primed:

    Mack & Munson. 2012. The influence of /s/ quality on ratings of men's sexual orientation: Explicit and implicit measures of the ‘gay lisp’ stereotype. Journal of Phonetics 40:198-212. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2011.10.002

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Why are you not answering my direct question concerning about my proposals about “science” about radar to spot aspies ?

    Of course, you won hands down when you wrote that South African men raping lesbians are just criminals. (Nonetheless some lesbians being safely in the closet might have so far escaped being gang raped just for being lesbians and are still living in that wonderful country).

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Stuart Brown 24 May 2012 11:30


    Interesting indeed.

    I cite the first article you proposed to us:

    ///The results showed that /s/-fronting carries strong social meaning across multiple speakers and other linguistic cues, making speakers sound less masculine, more gay and less competent.

    (…) Taken together, these results provide some support for style-based sociolinguistic models, but also underline the need for more sophisticated statistical treatments of covariation in social perception.


    In :Campbell-Kibler. 2011. Intersecting variables and perceived sexual orientation in men. American Speech 86:52–68. doi:10.1215/00031283-1277510

    Thanks for that link providing me with a hint of evidence of homophobia in the studied sample:

    “sound less masculine, more gay and less competent”

  • Kyle Jasmin

    Interesting study, but there are stylistic choices in Facebook photos that might tip the scales one way or other, like camera angle and head position. A lot of gay men like to take their photos from above, looking down.

    Using passport photos, as Neuroskeptic suggests, would let you answer questions about facial (bone) structure and sexuality. To find out if it's about muscle contractions, like phonetic features and gait, get people to produce faces for Ekman emotions, and see if (e.g.) smiles provide a better grip for gaydar than neutral or disgust or what have you.

  • petrossa


    I didn't answer it because i skipped over it. It seemed flippant.

    You don't need a radar to spot aspies. They are quite evident.

    @Kyle Jasmin said..

    It's weird since i am pretty much incapable to determine subtle states of mind via facial expressions, however gayness stands out like a red flag.

    So it must be some facial expression or movement pattern that's unrelated to the emotions.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    OK, thanks.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    “The sample sizes were large” said Neurosckeptic.

    Please explain since I read in the paper about what I understand as the sample i.e. the subjects of studies:

    ///Twenty-four University of Washington students (19 women; age range = 18–22 years) participated in exchange for extra course credit. Data from seven additional participants were excluded from analyses due to failure to follow instructions (n = 4) or computer malfunction (n = 3).///

    Also worth notice -since some psychologists want to prescribe drugs:

    ///Portions of this paper were presented to the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington in June 2011 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the first author’s Master of Science. Portions of this paper were presented to the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University in May 2009 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the first author’s Bachelor of Arts with Honors.///

    In addition to the fact that “the sample”festst nAesfer get credit in their psychologist education as stated in:

    ///Twenty-four University of Washington students (19 women; age range = 18–22 years) participated in exchange for extra course credit. ///

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    I just read another strong motive to despise this study and it has to do with a 80 years old famous psychiatrist being troubled for his legacy since in 2001 he published an infamous paper based on interviews of “ex-gays therapists clients”

    I cite Gabriel Arana 's
    April 11, 2012

    “My So-Called Ex-Gay Life;
    A deep look at the fringe movement that just lost its only shred of scientific support.”

    ///In 2001 (…)the ex-gay movement’s claims received a significant boost.

    In 1973, Columbia professor and prominent psychiatrist Robert Spitzer had led the effort to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness.

    But 28 years later, Spitzer released a study that asserted change in one’s sexual orientation was possible.

    Based on 200 interviews with ex-gay patients—the largest sample amassed—(…) Spitzer concluded that, at least for a highly select group of motivated individuals, it worked.

    What translated into the larger culture was: The father of the 1973 revolution in the classification and treatment of homosexuality, who could not be seen as just another biased ex-gay crusader with an agenda, had validated ex-gay therapy.

    An Associated Press story called it “explosive.” In the words of one of Spitzer’s gay colleagues, it was like “throwing a grenade into the gay community.”

    For the ex-gay movement, it was a godsend. (…) Spitzer’s study was published in the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior.

    The study infuriated gay-rights supporters and many psychiatrists, who condemned its methodology and design. (…)

    I told Spitzer that Nicolosi had asked me to participate in the 2001 study and recount my success in therapy, but that I never called him.

    “I actually had great difficulty finding participants,” Spitzer said. “In all the years of doing ex-gay therapy, you’d think Nicolosi would have been able to provide more success stories. He only sent me nine patients.”

    I said that while I stayed in the closet for a few years more than I might have, I ended up accepting my sexuality. (…).

    “In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct,” he said.

    He said he spoke with the editor of the Archives of Sexual Behavior about writing a retraction, but the editor declined. (Repeated attempts to contact the journal went unanswered.)

    (…) Spitzer (to the author) “Would I print a retraction of his 2001 study, “so I don’t have to worry about it anymore”? ///

    NB: Do not take me wrong, I have not sympathy at all for Dr
    Spitzer and I do not buy his excuse: he could have retracted his 2001 study by writing a letter shaming the 2001 publisher's refusal for retractation (assuming he tried to retract) to another Journal like “The Am Jour of Psychiatry ” or even “the New England J ” .But what can you expect from a DSM maker?

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Still citing Gabriel Arana

    ///Nicolosi formed NARTH in 1992 as a “scientific organization that offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality.”

    By 1998, the group was holding an annual conference, publishing its own journal, and training hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors. (…)

    in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ex-gay therapy enjoyed a legitimacy it hadn’t since the APA removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual.

    (…)Whether or not the Christian right’s alliance with the ex-gay movement had constituted a D-Day in the culture wars, it had successfully challenged the prevailing idea that the best choice for gay people was to accept themselves.

    23 years after the American Psychiatric Association (APA) declassified homosexuality as a mental illness.

    A small group of therapists continued to practice talk therapy that encouraged patients to see homosexuality as a developmental disorder, but they remained on the fringe until the Christian right took up their cause. This was a calculated political move.

    Instead of fire-and-brimstone denunciations from the pulpit, the ex-gay movement allowed the Christian right to couch its condemnation of homosexuality in a way that seemed compassionate.

    Focus on the Family called its new ex-gay ministry Love Won Out and talked about healing and caring for homosexuals.

    I ask why, if he was so sure I had “got it,” I never experienced change in my sexual orientation.

    Nicolosi says his techniques have improved—now his patients focus more on the moment of sexual attraction instead of speaking generally about the cause of homosexuality.

    Therapy, he says, has become more effective. But part of the reason it failed for me, he says, was also that I was stuck: There were not men I could bond with, and my parents did not understand me. .

    (…)I’m thinking, as he speaks, that for all his talk about understanding the homosexual condition, what it feels like to be gay is beyond Nicolosi’s experience.

    For him, changing one’s sexual orientation is a hypothetical proposition. He’s never lived it. Only his patients have had to face the failure of his ideas.

    (…)It is true that while in therapy, I did not feel coerced into believing his theories. Like nuclear fallout, the damage came later, when I realized my sexual orientation would not change. I could have told Nicolosi about my thoughts of suicide, my time in the mental institution.///

    NB: Hard to believe that it was not an ethical issue to obey very high standard in science in 2001 for Dr Spitzer and the editors of “the Archives of Sexual Behavior”!

    Difficult also to agree that any badly designed study is OK to be published and be part of somebody qualification as a psychologist.

  • Skeptikai

    Hi Neuroskeptic!
    I just found your post, a day after I wrote about this research on my website. It's interesting to see that we have very different (yet basically converging) takes on it.

    But I'm particularly curious as to know why you said that the sample sizes were large. I was much more critical, arguing that 24 is far too small. In fact, I think this research was very poorly put together, and should not be considered with much seriousness. Please let me know if/why you disagree.


  • Neuroskeptic

    Thanks for the comment. On the sample size, 24 is quite small, but then in Experiment 2 they had another 129 people and they replicated the results from the 24 people.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Do you know if the greedy for credit psychology students of theirs knew about the strange decision to select half out of the closet homosexuals in the materials they were working upon?

    NB: I must admit that if the students were expecting a more “real-life” proportion of out of the closet homosexuals they have a talent to spot self-advertising on face book homosexuals-nothing more though.



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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