IMG_0755I mentioned previously that signal detection analysis could be applied to diverse fields of inquiry, including the study of gaydar. The word “gaydar” is a portmanteau of the words “gay” and “radar”, and refers to the ability of identifying sexual orientation in people. Considering that signal detection theory emerged from radar research, it seems quite apt that this type of approach should be used to investigate the ability to gaydar.

Very simply, if we have two classes of stimuli, such as, for example, photos of individuals that are homosexual and photos of individuals that are heterosexual, we can use signal detection analysis to quantify how well an observer can discriminate accurately between these two classes. First, we would need to classify (arbitrarily) one group of stimuli as targets (e.g., homosexual individuals) and the other group of stimuli as lures (e.g., heterosexual individuals). Then, we would simply measure how often the observer hits, meaning here that she/he calls a homosexual target “homosexual”, and how often she/he makes a false alarm, meaning that she/he calls a heterosexual target “homosexual”.*

After doing this, it is possible to derive a measure of accuracy, typically d’ (pronounced dee-prime), and a measure of bias, typically c (pronounced si!). In most cases, and foreseeably in this case, d’ and c are independent from each other.

Now, by no means am I an expert in psychosexuality or anything like that. However, due to my interest in detection theory, I recently ended up doing  pretty much what I am describing above, working together with colleagues from Liverpool Hope University, where I am based, and UCLAN. The resulting paper is currently in press with the Archives of Sexual Behavior; it is authored by Minna Lyons, Aoife Lynch, Gayle Brewer, and myself; and it is titled Detection of sexual orientation (“Gaydar”) by homosexual and heterosexual women. 

Of interest here is the first study. We showed 55 heterosexual and 71 homosexual women a total of 80 black and white photographs of people, as you would see on a dating site, for instance. The portraits are fairly normal in appearance: people were just posing for a shot. Of the 80 photos, 20 were heterosexual men, 20 were homosexual men, 20 were heterosexual women, and 20 were homosexual women. Our 126 observers were asked to decide whether each person shown to them was homosexual or heterosexual – so, again, you can classify homosexual men and women as targets, and heterosexual men and women as lures.

Once we applied signal detection theory and analysed the data, we found a few interesting things. First of all, we show in our study that people have the ability to discriminate between homosexual and heterosexual individuals; detection accuracy was better than chance for both homosexual and heterosexual observers, and for both male and female stimuli. Similar results have been found before, but this still appears to be a disputed conclusion.

Second, we observed a probable gender-bias, in that female faces were more accurately identified as heterosexual or homosexual than male faces. This is not entirely surprising if you think that our observers were all female and you could argue that gaydar should work best with your own gender (max familiarity).

Finally, we saw that homosexual observers were more inclined towards using the homosexual label than heterosexual observers – however, not to the detriment of their overall accuracy. What does it mean? Essentially, it means that homosexual observers were more liberal in their responses, generally requiring less signal strength for a “homosexual” decision. Intuitively, this finding makes perfect sense; a homosexual person should be more interested in finding other homosexual people than a heterosexual person, since other homosexuals can represent potential mates for the former, but not for the latter. As a consequence of this interest, homosexual observers could result in engaging in more liberal responding.

If you are interested in more gaydar-related research, I am not really the person to ask, but there is a lot more out there to read in addition to our paper. Speaking of which, our paper generated commentary already, to which we have responded. I expect that our response will come out in the next issue of the Archives.

And that’s it for today – thanks for reading. (Photo credit: my wife)

* You will also have a miss when a homosexual target is called “heterosexual”, and a correct rejection when a heterosexual target is called “heterosexual”.


About Davide Bruno

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University
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