According to an article in Scientific American, without being aware of it, most people can accurately identify gay men by face alone.
There's Something Queer about That Face
by Jesse Bering
Although I've always wanted this particular superhuman power, I've never been very good at detecting other men's sexual orientation. Findings from a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, however, suggest I may be underestimating my gaydar abilities.
The January 2008 study investigated people's ability to identify homosexual men from pictures of their faces alone. In an initial experiment, researchers Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady from Tufts University perused online dating sites and carefully selected 45 straight male faces and 45 gay male faces. All of these photos were matched for orientation (only faces shown looking forward were used) and facial alterations (none of the images contained jewelry, glasses or facial hair). To control for context, the faces were also cut and pasted onto a white background for the study. These 90 faces were then shown to 90 participants in random order, who were asked simply to judge the target's "probable sexual orientation" (gay or straight) by pressing a button. Surprisingly, all participants (both men and women) scored above chance on this gaydar task, correctly identifying the gay faces. Even more surprisingly, accuracy rate was just as good when the images were exposed at a rapid rate of only 50 milliseconds, which offered participants no opportunity to consciously process the photo.
Rule and Ambady conducted a second experiment that controlled for such extraneous variables as self-presentation and hairstyle.
In this second study, the authors used images from the social networking site Facebook rather than online dating Web sites.
Again, the authors superimposed these male faces (this time 80 gay and 80 straight) onto a white background. They then photoshopped off the participants' hairstyles, this time truly leaving only the faces as a source of information about sexual orientation. And even with these more stringent controls, the participants were able to identify the gay faces at levels greater than chance—again even on those trials where the faces were flickered on the screen for a mere 50 milliseconds.
Furthermore, in an even more rigorously controlled series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers demonstrated that perceivers were able to do this even when they were shown only individual features of the target's face. For example, when shown only the eye region ("without brows and cropped to the outer canthi so that not even "crow's-feet" were visible"), perceivers were amazingly still able to accurately identify a man as being gay. The same happened when shown the mouth region alone. Curiously, most of the participants underestimated their ability to identify gay faces from these features alone. That is to say, people seem to have honed and calibrated their gaydar without knowing they've done so.
Frankly, these findings are a little puzzling to me. Rule and his co-authors mention a few lackluster evolutionary reasons why it would be biologically adaptive for women to know which men aren't worth the trouble and for men to know who's not really a sexual competitor. But they also acknowledge that it's impossible to know from these findings what exactly it is about these facial features that give gays away. "Future studies," the authors wrote, "may wish to examine what aspects of these features lead to accurate judgments, what their origins might be, and how we acquire the ability to detect them.
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The Urban Dictionary offers one possible explanation.
"The use of certain expressions can become ingrained in the musculature of the face over time. Since effeminate gay men utilize similar facial expressions as women, they develop female aging and muscle contraction patterns in their face. For example, gay face includes tightness around the mouth from pursing the lips, a facial expression common to gay men and women... Gay face includes an eye expression that is surprised looking... Eyebrows are usually arched higher than that of straight men..."
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