Friday, May 21, 2010

Attentional bias and "gaydar"

Global or Local? Gay or Eurotrash? Navon figure flanked by two game pieces from Gay or EUROtrash? the ultimate gaydar game!

Believe it or not, there's an article in the new journal Frontiers in Cognition1 entitled "Sexual orientation biases attentional control: a possible gaydar mechanism" (Colzato et al., 2010). What is "gaydar"? And why on earth would one think of studying the allocation of attention to global and local visual perceptual features in relation to gaydar? Here's why:
Individuals with a homosexual orientation are often believed to have a “telepathic sixth sense” (Reuter, 2002) for recognizing each other, an ability that is often referred to as gaydar (Shelp, 2002) – a portmanteau of gay and radar. Even though perceivable differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals may not be salient to everyone, some studies revealed subtle but distinctive features that homosexuals tend to share, such as coiffure (Rule et al., 2008), body-movement and gesturing style (Ambady et al., 1999), speech patterns (Linville, 1998), and penile size (Bogaert and Hershberger, 1999).2 Hence, there is a rich perceptual basis for people to develop a reliable gaydar, and homosexuals are apparently better trained in making use of it.
To test the possible perceptual basis of gaydar, the authors made use of Navon figures (1977), which are comprised of small letters that form a larger letter. The characters can be the same or different, as shown below.

Navon (1977) demonstrated that global visual features take precedence over the local ones ("forest before trees"). When in conflict, the large letter (global) interferes with the ability to identify the smaller letters (local), but local features do not hinder the ability to identify global features. Colzato et al. (2010) reasoned that gay individuals might need to focus on specific and local perceptual cues in order to correctly identify others with the same (or different) sexual orientation. Hence, the global precedence effect was predicted to be smaller in gay people than in straight people.

To test this hypothesis, 42 Dutch participants (25 male and 17 female) were recruited for the study. On a multidimensional Kinsey-like scale (with seven variables each scored from 1-7), half were self-identified as straight (1.0) and the other half as gay (6.5). The stimuli were composed of large and small rectangles and/or triangles. Participants made button press responses to stimulus shape, based on the stimulus dimension (global or local) that was cued on each trial. The results demonstrated that the gay group did indeed show a smaller global precedence effect than the straight folk (see below).

Figure 1 (Colzato et al., 2010). Mean global precedence effect for homosexuals and heterosexuals. Vertical capped lines atop bars indicate standard error of the mean.

Heterosexuals were 68 msec faster to respond to global than to local features, but homosexuals were only 40 msec faster. The groups differed for this main effect of global/local dimension... but we don't know about the interaction with congruity. Nor do we know anything about potential male/female differences, because those weren't reported either. Nonetheless, results are consistent with the interpretation that gay men and women might have a relative bias towards detail-oriented processing when compared to heterosexuals.

Now sexual orientation can join the other studies of group identity and attention to global vs. local features. These same authors previously showed that Dutch Calvinists (who have an independent view of the self) show a smaller global precedence effect than Dutch atheists (Colzato et al., 2008). Other research has demonstrated that participants raised in collectivist Asian cultures tend to be more globally-oriented than individualistic North American participants (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). What might all this mean?
From a more general perspective, our findings add to previous observations that being a member of a particular social group seems to shape cognitive-control operations in specific ways – whether this group is defined by shared culture, religious practice or, as the present study suggests, shared sexual orientation.


1 The bar for article titles in this journal has been set pretty high, since the other two papers are DOOM'd to switch: superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooter games and Games with(out) Frontiers: toward an integrated science of human cognition.

2 Yes, the mean size is larger in gay men. On all five measures of penile length and circumference from Kinsey's original protocol (Bogaert & Hershberger, 1999).


Colzato LS, van den Wildenberg WP, Hommel B. (2008). Losing the big picture: how religion may control visual attention. PLoS One 3:e3679.

Colzato, L., van Hooidonk, L., van den Wildenberg, W., Harinck, F., & Hommel, B. (2010). Sexual orientation biases attentional control: a possible gaydar mechanism. Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00013

Masuda T, Nisbett RE. (2001). Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. J Pers Soc Psychol. 81:922–934. PDF

Navon D. (1977). Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception. Cognitive Psych. 9:353–383.

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At May 21, 2010 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone has tested this or not, but I think gaydar works in real-life situations in way which has less to do with what gay men look like but much more to do with where they're looking. Gay men look at other men, at other men's crotches, and pay less attention to women. Other gay men unconciously notice that gay men are paying attention to different aspects of their environment than hetersexual men. Noticing who someone is 'checking out' provides a big clue to their sexuality.

When it comes to images rather than real-life situations, I agree that there are other, more intrinsic, cues that can be observed in some cases, but I think this is actually different from gaydar.

At May 21, 2010 6:40 PM, Anonymous Kitty said...

The juxtaposition of Navon figures with the gay or Eurotrash game made my day. Excellent combo of geek + popular culture.

On a more serious note, if they are going to link this with gaydar, one wonders why they did not test gaydar in this study.

That is an odd little cottage industry the authors have going here (i.e., what else correlates with global vs local perception).

At May 22, 2010 10:36 AM, Blogger Kapitano said...

Individuals with a homosexual orientation are often believed to have a “telepathic sixth sense”

Some people, gay and straight do indeed say that - based on purely anecodotal evidence. Others...don't. Some say they learned to tell the difference over years.

Homophobic straight men also often claim they can tell at a glance who's gay - again, with only anecdotal evidence. So are these homophobes really gay, complete with gaydar? No - more likely they're just as deluded as any one else with a stupid prejudice.

To test the possible perceptual basis of gaydar, the authors made use of Navon figures (1977)

So hang on - this study is suggesting that gay people either are born with or develop a 'trees before forest' attention to detail...specifically so they can find other homosexuals...presumably to cruise them, and have sex with them.

Because everyone knows that's what all homosexuals do, all the time. But hets don't, so they don't have this attention to detail.

And just to complete the stereotype:

some studies revealed subtle but distinctive features that homosexuals tend to share, such as coiffure (Rule et al., 2008), body-movement and gesturing style (Ambady et al., 1999), speech patterns

At May 22, 2010 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait, wait, wait. Why wouldn't one expect this effect for anyone skilled in making subtle discriminations? For example, I wonder if botanists might show a smaller global effect as well since they regularly have to pay attention to very small details to make plant identifications.

I'm with Kitty: it's odd that they didn't test "gaydar" ability here to see if the smaller global precedence effect correlated with actual ability to pick out gay persons. We have no way to tell here if the difference between gay and straight persons in this study was due to "gaydar" or not. Perhaps the difference might be due to the fact that gay persons commonly suffer persecution & must be more vigilant to pick out threatening situations, gay-friendly areas, etc. ?

At May 23, 2010 12:00 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Kitty - I'm glad you enjoyed the figures! You and Anonymous of May 22 9:18 PM made a good point -- why not correlate actual gay-detecting abilities with the global precedence effect? [I did wonder that myself and should have included it in the post.]

I also wondered about sex differences in this task, and the data seem unclear on this point (e.g., Kimchi et al. 2009). Another study found that 'Global-local visual biases correspond with visual-spatial orientation' (Basso & Lowery 2004):

"Within the past decade, numerous investigations have demonstrated reliable associations of global-local visual processing biases with right and left hemisphere function, respectively. Yet the relevance of these biases to other cognitive functions is not well understood. Towards this end, the present research examined the relationship between global-local visual biases and perception of visual-spatial orientation. Twenty-six women and 23 men completed a global-local judgment task and the Judgment of Line Orientation Test (JLO), a measure of visual-spatial orientation. As expected, men had better performance on JLO. Extending previous findings, global biases were related to better visual-spatial acuity on JLO. The findings suggest that global-local biases and visual-spatial orientation may share underlying cerebral mechanisms..."

I thought findings like that would be relevant in light of sex and sexual orientation differences in mental rotation abilities (Peters et al. 2007): men are better than women, straight men are better than gay men, gay women are better than straight women.

So there appear to be both learned and biological influences on global/local processing (not too surprising).

Kapitano - Not that I'm an apologist for the authors' views, but they didn't entirely restrict gaydar's usefulness to cruising for sex:

Adopting such a perceptual style presumably increases the likelihood to detect perceptual cues indicative of homosexual orientation, which again facilitates finding like-minded, social peers, and potential friends and sex mates.

Women were included in this study as well. Are gay women known for cruising to a much greater extent than straight women?

At May 24, 2010 7:45 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi there,
This is Christian Jarrett from the BPS Research Digest. I'm running an interview series with psychology/neurosci bloggers. I'd love for you to take part - please email christianjarrett at if you're interested.

At May 27, 2010 7:42 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

To Kitty, Anonymous, and anyone else questioning why the researchers didn't directly test ability to detect gay vs. straight subjects, I can offer my hypothesis (formed quickly and snarkily, without having run down the original article). It is this: Since the study was done in Europe, all of the gay subjects would present confounding admixtures of both "Gay" AND "Eurotrash", thereby making any measurements (more) meaningless.

At June 06, 2010 8:46 PM, Anonymous Mel said...

I find it incredibly odd and bizarre that we can so easily and quickly make judgments about a person's sexuality (given that for many individuals, it takes years to come to grips with... not that they are equivalent judgments in any way, but the stark contrast is somewhat striking to me). I think it's interesting to compare this to the gaydar project at MIT in which students wrote a program so that computers could detect homosexuals on facebook by examining the individual's network of friends... showing that it may literally be minute cues that are evaluated in a split second by the brain or computer. (This is a link to an article about that project at MIT:


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