Ladies: Is your “gaydar” off? Could you swear that guy was straight, only to later see him smooching with his same-sex soul mate?
Don’t fret about it. It may simply be the wrong time of the month.
According to a study just published in the journal Psychological Science, women are significantly better at judging male sexual orientation as they approach peak fertility. A research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Nicholas Rule also found romantic thoughts heighten women’s ability to discriminate between gay and straight men.
Rule’s previous research has found men and women are surprisingly good at judging sexual orientation, particularly when we go with our initial instincts about a person. He also found gay men tend to be more accurate in their judgment than their straight counterparts.
His most recent study consisted of three experiments featuring young, heterosexual women as participants. In the first, 40 undergrads (who were not using contraceptives at the time and who reported the length of time since their last menses) looked at a series of images of men’s faces. Forty of the photos were of self-identified gay males, while the other 40 were of straight guys.
The men “did not differ in emotional expression or attractiveness,” the researchers write. “Participants were encouraged to use their intuition in making judgments.”
As in his previous research, Rule found that accuracy levels were “significantly higher than chance guessing.” More to the point, he reports that “the nearer women were to peak ovulation, the more accurate they were.”
A second experiment featured 34 women who viewed a similar series of female faces. In this case, 100 of the women whose images were used where self-identified lesbians, while the other 100 were straight. The researchers found no relationship between fertility and accurate judgments of the women’s sexual orientation, suggesting this dynamic is limited to male targets.
The third and final experiment featured 40 women, half of whom read a story that described a romantic encounter. All then looked at that same series of images of 80 men from the first experiment, and made the gay-or-straight call on each.
Those who had read the story, and were thus “primed with a mating goal,” were “significantly more accurate than those who were not,” the researchers report. When this experiment was repeated with female faces, researchers found mating-related thoughts did not aid in accuracy.
The evolutionary basis for this heightened sensitivity is self-evident. When either a woman’s body or emotions are signaling that it really matters, her ability to pick out a suitable (at least in the most basic sense) mate is sharpened.
So gay men who are trying to pass are on notice. Under certain conditions, which regularly recur, that closet door you’re hiding behind turns tellingly transparent.