Piggybacking on the research of others, Malcolm Gladwell taught America about “thin-slicing” — and how subtle cues, often picked up by your subconscious, can form a correct conclusion in fractions of a second. Among the researchers Gladwell cites in his research is Nalini Ambady, who collaborated on a recent study with Nicholas Rule to see whether college students could determine someone’s sexuality just by looking at them. The answer? More often than not, yes. And it takes less time than, well, the blink of an eye.
The methodology, relays Dave Munger:
They selected 90 photos of men from dating websites, carefully choosing only headshots that didn’t feature facial hair, jewelry, glasses, or other accessories. Half the photos were of men seeking male partners, and half were seeking female partners. Then the photos were shown in random order to 90 student volunteers. Photos were displayed for either 33 ms, 50 ms, 100 ms, or 6.5 or 10 seconds. In addition, some of the photos were shown with no time limit at all. Immediately after each photo was shown, a mask of scrambled face parts was shown to clear any afterimages. The students were asked to indicate whether the face they had just seen was likely to be gay or straight. Were they accurate? And if so, how quickly could they do it?
And the results:
The students responded significantly better than chance for every time period except the 33 millisecond exposure. A chance accuracy rate would be 50 percent, and even after just a 50 millisecond exposure, the students were accurate 57 percent of the time. When the results were corrected using signal detection analysis (to compensate for the fact that fewer than 50 percent of men are gay in real life), accuracy was 62 percent at 50 milliseconds, and as high as 70 percent when self-paced.
Now how about for some error correcting:
One potential problem with this experiment is the source of the photos. Perhaps men on dating sites deliberately present themselves as heterosexual or homosexual to make themselves more attractive to potential mates. To compensate, the researchers found photos of men from Facebook. They carefully chose only photos that were taken and posted by friends or family members, not the men themselves. They used the men’s profiles to learn if they were gay or straight, identifying 69 gay men and and 64 straight men. The photos were cropped to show only the faces — even hairstyles were removed. Then the researchers repeated the original experiment using just a 50 millisecond flash, since that had been the critical interval. Fifteen student volunteers viewed the photos.
Once again, the students were significantly better than chance at identifying gay men, with an accuracy rate of 52 percent, corrected to 54 percent using signal detection analysis. While this means the students were wrong 48 percent of the time, it’s nonetheless impressive, especially given the extremely short display time and the fact that hairstyles had been removed from the photos (which was not the case in the first experiment).
Why is being able to quickly surmise someone’s sexual orientation even useful? Well unless you’re an employer looking to exploit an ENDA-less nation, then there’s one other obvious function: “Rule and Ambady say it might have to do with efficient mate selection. Women need to be able to rule out unsuitable mates, while men need to determine who their potential competition is.”
That conclusion, of course, forgets that gay men and women can also determine the sexuality of strangers — and that gay men also need to rule out unsuitable mates (i.e. straight men), while gay women also need to know who their potential competition is (i.e. other lesbian gals).
What would’ve been truly interesting, or perfect for a follow up study, is to see whether it matters whether being straight or gay gives you better gaydar. Or Republican.