Gaydar’ revisited

Image via Thinkstock.

Image via Thinkstock.

I had a friend in col­lege who claimed to have extremely good “gaydar.” She insisted that, gen­er­ally speaking, les­bians (of which she was one) tended to be better at picking out other les­bians from a crowd and that I, despite my own exper­i­mental ten­den­cies, shouldn’t even try. I was basi­cally straight and didn’t know what I was talking about.

A new study lead by North­eastern  doc­toral can­di­date Mollie Ruben, with assis­tance from psy­chology pro­fessor Judith Hall and vis­iting pro­fessor of mar­keting Krista Hill, seems to bear this out. While my col­lege friend was basi­cally right about les­bians being better at detecting sexual ori­en­ta­tion in other women, the study found that straight women were better at detecting their peers’ emo­tions and thoughts.

This isn’t the first study to look at “gaydar,” but it is one of only a handful to examine it in the spe­cific con­text of women. Most studies on sexual ori­en­ta­tion and per­cep­tion, the authors write, are focused on males.

Another unique thing about this new study is that it doesn’t just look at judge­ments of sexual ori­en­ta­tion, but also of emo­tions, thoughts, and personality.

Here’s how the exper­i­ment went down: The study authors filmed inter­views with nine target sub­jects, during which a “con­fed­erate” (someone who was in cahoots with the researchers but didn’t know what the study was all about) asked ques­tions about family rela­tion­ships and future plans to draw out emo­tional responses from the interviewees.

After filming, these tar­gets sub­jects (four of whom were straight*) watched them­selves on screen and marked down the emo­tions and thoughts they expe­ri­enced at par­tic­ular time-​​points during the inter­view. Col­lec­tively, these nine ladies expe­ri­enced 7,150 thoughts and emo­tions during their five-​​minute inter­view (that’s a lot of thinking and feeling!). The tar­gets also had to fill out a per­son­ality ques­tion­naire about them­selves and ask a friend to do the same to verify their self-​​reports.

Next, 100 judges (67 straight women and 43 les­bians) were asked to watch these same videos and at each time-​​point when the target indi­cated a feeling or emo­tion, the judge had to guess what that feeling or emo­tion was. The judges also had to guess at the tar­gets’ per­son­al­i­ties (Does she remain calm in stressful sit­u­a­tions? Is she assertive?).

The researchers scored the judges based on four things: whether they accu­rately detected the target’s emo­tions, thoughts, per­son­ality, and sexual ori­en­ta­tion. For each of these, the judges were scored both for all the tar­gets col­lec­tively, and then just for the straight tar­gets and les­bian tar­gets alone.

In the end, what they found was actu­ally some­what sur­prising. While the les­bians were better at pre­dicting sexual ori­en­ta­tion, the straight women were better at pre­dicting thoughts and emo­tions. They were par­tic­u­larly good at this when the tar­gets they were judging were straight, like them. Both groups did an equally good job of pre­dicting per­son­ality traits.

Also, the straight tar­gets were gen­er­ally more trans­parent (to both straight and les­bian judges) than their les­bian coun­ter­parts. Both groups of judges had a con­sis­tently easier time pre­dicting every­thing about the straight women, be it ori­en­ta­tion or emo­tion, etc.

The researchers have a few ideas about why they saw what they did. First, they sug­gest that maybe the les­bians found it “more inter­esting, moti­vating, and rewarding to judge the sexual ori­en­ta­tion of other women com­pared to judging their thoughts, emo­tions, or per­son­ality.” Straight judges, they say, might not care so much about sexual ori­en­ta­tion and thus don’t focus on it enough to do a good job of pre­dicting it.

In the case of judging tar­gets’ thoughts (which the researchers call empathic accu­racy), they wonder if the straight women con­sid­ered the les­bians as “out-​​group” (not like them) while the les­bians con­sider all of the tar­gets to be “in-​​group.” If that’s the case, then maybe the straight women were less moti­vated to empathize with les­bians, while les­bians want to empathize with all of the ladies.

The authors do point out that this exper­i­ment has a number of lim­i­ta­tions, namely the fact that it took place in Boston, where people are less likely to have con­ser­v­a­tive thoughts and opin­ions about homo­sex­u­ality. Fur­ther­more, the par­tic­i­pants weren’t exactly what you’d call a random sample. Rather recruited through friend net­works and LGB com­mu­nity websites.

That said, it adds a whole new layer to the con­cept of “gaydar”.…and, more impor­tantly, sev­eral novel con­tri­bu­tions to research on the subject.


*A NOTE ON DETERMINING SEXUAL ORIENTATION: I absolutely love this para­graph from the paper:

” Although sexual ori­en­ta­tion is not intrin­si­cally dichoto­mous, we cre­ated a binary sexual ori­en­ta­tion vari­able from the con­tinuos 7-​​point homo­sex­u­ality vari­able. Each judge watched all nine tar­gets and made the con­tin­uous homo­sex­u­ality rating of each target. Judge­ments of 1 (not at all homo­sexual) and 2 (slightly homo­sexual) were grouped as straight while judge­ments of 3–7 (mildly homo­sexual, mod­er­ately homo­sexual, sig­nif­i­cantly homo­sexual, very homo­sexual, and extremely homo­sexual) were grouped as les­bian. All straight tar­gets had selected a 1 (not at all homo­sexual) and all les­bian tar­gets had selected a 6 or 7 (very homo­sexual or extremely homo­sexual) so the target cri­te­rion data were grouped in the same way as the judges’ per­cep­tion data.”