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'Gaydar' revisited

Image via Thinkstock.
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.”

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