If you’ve ever met someone who claims to have really good gaydar, they’re probably just very lucky at stereotyping people. The Journal of Sex Research released a study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that confirms gaydar isn’t actually a thing, but the stereotypes it pushes can do definite harm.
The study featured three groups: one group was told that gaydar was real; another, that gaydar is just stereotyping and the last control group was told nothing. The researchers then showed the three groups the same pictures of men, alongside a statement about their interests.
The “gaydar is real” group were more likely to say that men with stereotypically gay interests were gay. The “gaydar is just stereotyping” group was much less likely to make conclusions about the men’s sexual orientation.
William Cox, the lead author of the study, has a great explanation of how gaydar doesn’t work:
Imagine that 100 percent of gay men wear pink shirts all the time, and 10 percent of straight men wear pink shirts all the time. Even though all gay men wear pink shirts, there would still be twice as many straight men wearing pink shirts. So – even in this extreme example – people who rely on pink shirts as a stereotypic cue to assume men are gay will be wrong two-thirds of the time.
In other words, imagine an island of 100 men. Of those men, we can assume that about 10 percent of them will be gay. So, we’ve already got 10 pink shirt wearers. Of the remaining 90, 20 percent will be pink shirt afficianados, or 18. Thus, on this island, we can expect to see 28 people wearing shirts, only 10 of them, or a little more than a third, will be gay. So, if you assume that a particular pink shirt wearer is gay, you’ll only be right 35.7 percent of the time… not good odds.
This study goes against a previous study that suggested gaydar was real. However, that study used a small sample size (only 42 people!), and made some strange assumptions. That study showed participants pictures of shapes and then asked them questions about it; they discovered that straight people answered more quickly and were more likely to be inaccurate, while gay people took more time and were more often correct. The researchers took this to mean that gay people were better at picking up subtle clues to another person’s orientation — but between the small sample size and the lack of a concrete connection between the study’s results and conclusion, the study is inconclusive at best.