You may be familiar with the neologism ‘gaydar’. The idea is that people who supposedly have this quality can intuit accurately a person’s sexual orientation simply by observing them. I had heard about this and naturally was curious to see if I had this ability. But a few casual attempts on my part to do so had such variable results that I concluded that even if there were such a thing as gaydar, I certainly did not have it.
But now via Machines Like Us I learn of a
In a new paper published in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison challenge what they call “the gaydar myth.” William Cox, an assistant scientist in the Department of Psychology and the lead author, says gaydar isn’t accurate and is actually a harmful form of stereotyping.
“Most people think of stereotyping as inappropriate,” Cox says. “But if you’re not calling it ‘stereotyping,’ if you’re giving it this other label and camouflaging it as ‘gaydar,’ it appears to be more socially and personally acceptable.”
Cox and his team questioned the validity of the previous research, citing differences in the quality of the photos used for the gay and straight people featured in the study. The gay men and lesbians, according to Cox’s studies, had higher quality pictures than their straight counterparts. When researchers controlled for differences in photo quality, participants were unable to tell who was gay and straight.
The study points out, using simple statistics, that in any situation involving a subset of the population that is very is small, our intuitions about any identifying characteristics of that group are likely to be flawed.
To illustrate, suppose the stereotype that gay men like shopping is highly accurate: 100% of gay men and only 10% of straight men enjoy shopping. If one then relies on this stereotype to infer that a man is gay, what are the odds the inference will be correct? Without correction for base rates, the apparent answer would be a 91% probability (i.e., 10:1 odds) of being correct, because gay men are ten times more likely to enjoy shopping than straight men. The reality, however, is that there is only a 34% probability (10:19 odds) of being correct. This is because the base rate of gay men in the population is extremely small, approximately 5% of the adult male population. Thus, even if gay men are ten times more likely to like shopping, men who like shopping are still twice as likely to be straight as to be gay, because straight men outnumber gay men 19 to 1.
This problem is similar to the situations that I wrote about a few years ago with things like tests for drugs and diseases, where I showed that our intuition can be way off whenever the percentage of positives is likely to be small.
You can read the paper Inferences About Sexual Orientation: The Roles of Stereotypes, Faces, and The Gaydar Myth (Journal Of Sex Research, 0(0), 1–15, 2015) here. As the abstract states:
These studies revealed that orientation is not visible from the face— purportedly ‘‘face-based’’ gaydar arises from a third-variable confound. People do, however, readily infer orientation from stereotypic attributes (e.g., fashion, career). Furthermore, the folk concept of gaydar serves as a legitimizing myth: Compared to a control group, people stereotyped more often when led to believe in gaydar, whereas people stereotyped less when told gaydar is an alternate label for stereotyping. Discussion focuses on the implications of the gaydar myth and why, contrary to some prior claims, stereotyping is highly unlikely to result in accurate judgments about orientation.
As the authors state in the body of the paper:
It is important to note that the term myth itself does not indicate truth or falsity; it merely suggests that the idea—in this case, the idea that people have gaydar— is widely known and believed by many to be a self-apparent truth.
Gay men and lesbian women’s nonvisible group status, however, is rendered purportedly visible by their cultural stereotypes. Relying on these stereotypes to infer orientation is unlikely to yield accurate conclusions. Further, the folk concept of gaydar is a legitimizing myth that exacerbates this stereotyping process, covertly encouraging reliance on these stereotypes as categorization cues. Seeking out and emphasizing intergroup similarities rather than intergroup differences, combating stereotypes, and dispelling legitimizing myths will help us progress toward the personal and societal goal of social equality.
In short, it is better to avoid the practice of stereotyping even when it takes a seemingly innocuous form and seems like a harmless exercise.