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People identify the sexual orientation of strangers as fast as 50 milliseconds

ResearchBlogging.orgNalini Ambady has become famous for her research on “thin slicing,” the idea that ordinary people can make accurate judgments about others amazingly quickly. We’ve discussed work from her lab showing that people can accurately predict teaching ability by watching just six seconds of video of a teacher at work. Other judgments, like gender, race, and age, can be made even faster.

But what about less obvious traits? Nicholas Rule and Ambady designed a study to see if college students could accurately identify gay men based on photos alone. They selected 90 photos of men from dating websites, carefully choosing only headshots that didn’t feature facial hair, jewelry, glasses, or other accessories. Half the photos were of men seeking male partners, and half were seeking female partners. Then the photos were shown in random order to 90 student volunteers. Photos were displayed for either 33 ms, 50 ms, 100 ms, or 6.5 or 10 seconds. In addition, some of the photos were shown with no time limit at all. Immediately after each photo was shown, a mask of scrambled face parts was shown to clear any afterimages. The students were asked to indicate whether the face they had just seen was likely to be gay or straight. Were they accurate? And if so, how quickly could they do it? Here are the results:


The students responded significantly better than chance for every time period except the 33 millisecond exposure. A chance accuracy rate would be 50 percent, and even after just a 50 millisecond exposure, the students were accurate 57 percent of the time. When the results were corrected using signal detection analysis (to compensate for the fact that fewer than 50 percent of men are gay in real life), accuracy was 62 percent at 50 milliseconds, and as high as 70 percent when self-paced.

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