Gay-dar Contest: Liberals vs. Conservatives

Owen Poindexter
Who is better at determining whether a person is gay, liberals or conservatives? A group of scientists decided to find out.

What do you think, gay, straight or no opinion? PHOTOS: Wikimedia Commons

A group of scientists at NYU and the University of Toronto put some research to a question we have all asked ourselves at some point: do liberals or conservatives have better gay-dar. Gay-dar, in case you don't know is one's ability to detect whether or not a person is gay. The scientists tested this in a narrow, repeatable way: they showed subjects 30 pictures of faces. Half of the faces were of straight people, the other half gay, and subjects had to try and guess which was which just from their faces. Afterward, subjects were quizzed on their political orientation. The results: it's not about who won, it's about how the game was played.

Conservatives came to their conclusions faster and used a more predictable technique: they were more likely to pick women with relatively masculine faces or men with relatively feminine faces as gay. Liberals took longer to make their decision, and were less bound to the gender inversion heuristic. The results came out about even: there is some correlation between gender-inverted facial features and gayness, which conservatives took better advantage of, but liberals were able to pick up other clues which balanced out their score. To test what was going on here, the experimenters came up with a clever twist: subjects were given a nonsensical sequence (e.g. 4RT9U$E) that they had to recite after every fifth face. With some of their cognitive faculties occupied, liberals acted like conservatives, relying more on gender inversion.

So, put that all together and a picture emerges: both liberals and conservatives make a quick initial judgment based on how much a person looks like the opposite gender, but conservatives leave it at that, while liberals keep looking for clues, which sometimes lead them to reject their initial assessment. Conservatives, in general (and yes, everything here should be taken with the caveat "on average") rely more on stereotypes, so "gay people" is a narrower category to conservatives (on average), and therefore it's easier to make statements that apply to all of them. To a liberal person, the only thing one can say for sure about a gay person is that they are gay, and other judgments come later. That could help explain some of the correlation between conservativeness and homophobia, but it's hard to know how the correlation of both with religious fervor factors in without a full-fledged investigation.

I'll leave that for another day, but these results on their own say much about how Americans think about gay people, and how attitudes shift with exposure to openly gay people.