Sex & Relationships

What Scientists Just Discovered About ‘Gaydar'

Does it exist?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“Gaydar” is commonly defined as the ability to detect homosexuality based on appearance. In 2008, a study came out claiming the phenomenon had some scientific weight to it. Three years later, a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison sought out to debunk those claims.

“Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,” lead author of the study, psychologist William Cox, said in a statement, adding “But if you’re not calling it ‘stereotyping,’ if you’re giving it this other label and camouflaging it as ‘gaydar,’ it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.”

In the 2008 study, researchers used facial photographs to test their theory. But Cox questions the validity of this method, claiming that the gay men and lesbians involved had a higher quality of pictures than their straight counterparts; that those involved in the 2008 study were able to detect who was gay and who was straight based on the stereotype that gay men take more pride in appearance and presentation.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus news, “when Cox and his team controlled for differences in photo quality, participants were unable to tell who was gay and straight.”

Cox also asserted that because such a small percentage of the population is gay (5 percent or less), assumptions regarding sexual orientation are often wrong.

He explained, “Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time. Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts. So, even in this extreme example, people who rely on pink shirts as a stereotypic cue to assume men are gay will be wrong two-thirds of the time.”

Cox and his team, which included professors Patricia Devine and Janet Hyde, as well as UW-Madison graduate Alyssa Bischmann, also relied another tool to deflate the claims made in 2008: priming.

The Washington Post reports, “When subjects were told that gaydar had scientific basis, they were more likely to guess that men with stereotypically “gay” traits were gay. For example, they were more likely to guess that a man was gay after being told that he liked to shop.”

Of course, being taken as gay is not, in-and-of-itself, a “bad” thing. But buying into seemingly benign stereotypes can pave the way for ones more sinister. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers found that individuals exposed to seemingly “positive” stereotypes (i.e. that black people are better at sports) were also more likely to hold stronger negative beliefs (i.e. black people are prone to violence). The authors write, positive stereotypes “may be uniquely capable at reinforcing cultural stereotypes and beliefs that people explicitly eschew as racist and harmful.”

Back 2014, Cox and Devine teamed up to investigate the effects of prejudice-based aggression. The duo explained to their participants that they would be playing a “game” involving the administration of electric shock to a subject in another room. “When the research team implied that the subject was gay using a stereotypic cue, participants shocked him far more often than when the research team explicitly told them he was gay,” writes Devin Lowe of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus news.

"There was a subset of people who were personally very prejudiced, but they didn't want other people to think that they were prejudiced, Cox explained, adding, "They tended to express prejudice only when they could get away with it."

"Recognizing when a stereotype is activated can help you overcome it and make sure that it doesn't influence your actions.” 

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture. 

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