Home > Attention, Memory > Who’s That Hottie? The Importance of Sexual Orientation in Facial Recognition

Who’s That Hottie? The Importance of Sexual Orientation in Facial Recognition

As I walk down Main Street in St. Paul, Minnesota, I see so many people who I assume I will never see again. As I turn the corner and enter a coffee shop, I recognize a person that I had passed by. I recognize the distinct facial features of this supposed stranger more than the hundreds of faces I have seen today. Facial recognition is critical to our lives as social human beings. In fact, we can recognize a face quickly due to our ability to process faces holistically. Holistic processing is when we process the entire face instead of looking at each separate facial feature. So was it that person’s attractive face that made me recognize them? People are attracted to all different types of people, so does attraction influence facial recognition? Perhaps sexual orientation plays a role in a person’s ability to recognize someone. One would think that heterosexual men and women would recognize the opposite sex better since they are attracted to them, but would that be the same for lesbians and gays?
To answer this question, cognitive psychologists Steffens, Landman, and Mecklenbraüker (2013) tested whether sexual orientation causes people to recognize the face of one sex better than the other. The experimenters wanted to see if heterosexual men, heterosexual women, lesbians and gay men were all better at recognizing the sex that they were attracted to so they could determine if a person’s sexual orientation should be a factor considered in research findings. In the experiment, Steffens et al. presented 32 photographs of non-distinctive Caucasian men and women to a large group of participant’s who identified as heterosexual women, lesbian, heterosexual men, and gay men. The participants were then asked to judge the photographs based on attractiveness and distinctiveness on a 5 point- scale. They were then presented with 64 more photographs of faces, half of which had been presented for the rating task and half of which they had never seen before. Participants then responded with whether the picture was old or new, as a way for experimenters to measure recognition. Each participant then filled out demographic information and how strongly he or she is attracted to a same-gender person.
Paralleling whom they are attracted to, results showed that heterosexual men will recognize women more than they will recognize men, just like gay men will recognize men more than women. For women, sexual orientation had no effect on recognizing men or women. The experimenters found that both lesbian and heterosexual women correctly recognized female photographs more than they recognized male photographs. The recognition of the photograph in the experiment is just like when I recognized the person I had passed by when I entered the coffee shop. I quickly recognized their face, and after glancing around I noticed a man checking out the girl in front of him in line because men tend to pay attention to the sex that they find attractive. This interaction was different than the woman in the corner of the shop who was glancing up at the women walking by, because women tend to pay more attention to the other women around them.
But why do males and females differ in their ability to recognize certain gendered faces? Men consider facial attractiveness to be more important than women do. Since gay men are interested in males they have more practice recognizing them. Thus both heterosexual and gay men practice recognizing people whom they find attractive so they can find a potential mate. If women are not as concerned about facial attractiveness, what makes them different when it comes to facial recognition? As reviewed by Steffens et al. heterosexual women are more concerned about their competition. They tend to judge each other’s attractiveness to gauge their threat to their relationship with men. This would explain why heterosexual women would be just as good at recognizing women as lesbians because they are both paying attention to the attractiveness of the women surrounding them.
So next time you recognize someone, ask yourself, why did I notice him or her? Sexual orientation and gender have an impact on your recognition of the faces around you. So keep your eyes out for those hotties, because they could be a potential mate or your biggest competition.

Works Cited:

Steffens, Melanie C., Sören Landmann, and Silvia Mecklenbräuker. “Participant Sexual Orientation Matters: New Evidence on the Gender Bias in Face Recognition.” 60.5 (2013): 362-67. Experimental Psychology. Web. 25 Nov. 2013. <http://0-psycnet.apa.org.library.colby.edu/journals/zea/60/5/362.html>.

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  1. Kaitlyn O’Connell
    November 28th, 2013 at 23:34 | #1

    This is a very interesting piece. I had never thought about there being a potential bias during facial recognition. Obviously people are more likely to remember faces that they find more attractive, but the piece about recognizing individuals of your sexual orientation raises an interesting point. While researchers ask for age and gender on a demographic sheet, I find it to be definitely worthwhile to include sexual orientation if the task involves facial recognition. The point you bring up about women (gay and straight) and gay men being similar in facial recognition due to the fact that they both are more likely to be checking their competition out due to threats to their relationships, I found to be very interesting. This I find to be a very valid point in the U.S. culture that we live in. However, I wonder if one would find different results in other cultures where maybe people are not so worried about competing with others based on attractiveness.

  2. December 1st, 2013 at 21:00 | #2

    Interesting! I never thought of sexual orientation leading to a bias in facial recognition until reading this. It reminds me a bit of the article I read which talked about how some social motives affect facial recognition, specifically social status, but in one study that was mentioned, the faces of attractive women were remembered more accurately by men due to their instinctive motive to mate. Also, the point you brought up about women judging the attractiveness of other women was also mentioned in the article I read, as the women remember the more attractive faces of women from the faces that were presented, so that’s an interesting point and very valid point. I’d be interested to see what the results would be like if the faces were of different races than the test subject, since we tend to recognize faces more accurately that are of our race than those of a different race.

  3. December 3rd, 2013 at 17:00 | #3

    This is a very thought provoking article. I never would have thought that a person’s sexual preference would have an affect on their ability to recognize faces. We have talked a lot about attention and controlling what we pay attention to in class this semester and this article does make sense in the context of what we’ve learned so far. It does make me wonder though, if sexual orientation affects facial recognition does it affect other things as well? Are women more likely to recognize a voice that they have only heard once before if it’s female or if it’s male? Is a person more likely to recognize a voice if they’re attracted to the person speaking?? I wonder if the results would be the same if they tested voice recognition or any other type of recognition.

  4. December 3rd, 2013 at 21:20 | #4

    It was really interesting to learn that sexual orientation affects facial recognition differently for men and women. I found it especially interesting that heterosexual men were more likely to recognize female faces, because they have a reputation of being overly focused on women’s bodies and less so on facial features. The fact that lesbians and gay men focus on the gender they are attracted to is very interesting, but it is important to consider that these people are their competitors as well as being potential partners. I wonder if their recognition bias was caused solely by attraction, or if it could be a combination of this and the evaluation of others’ attractiveness to avoid potential threats. Is there any way future research could untangle these two factors to determine what is causing the phenomenon? Also, sexuality is a spectrum, so it would be interesting to see how facial recognition plays out for those identifying as somewhere in between gay and straight.
    In a broader sense, what do these results say about our culture and/or biological predispositions? Why do straight women tend to assess competitors while straight men seem to not care as much about this?

  5. March 20th, 2014 at 21:16 | #5

    This is a very interesting article! I have never thought about how sexual attraction might effect facial recognition. The opening paragraph was intriguing and made me want to keep reading. It makes sense for people to be more likely to recognize faces of people they are attracted to. Harrison and Hole would describe this because there is more motivation to recognize faces of individuals you are sexually attracted to. I found it very interesting that men are more likely to remember faces of individuals that they are attracted to, but for women that statement is not true. During this semester we have talked about attention and how we as humans have control over our attention. The more one pays attention to a face, the more they will be able to recognize it in the future. It is intriguing that women, no matter what sexual orientation, are more likely to recognize faces of other women. This shows that women are competitive and need to recognize threats that may be present in a relationship. On the other hand, men are more concerned with finding a mate. As well as Sophie, this leaves me wondering as to what this proves about our culture in the US.

  6. March 21st, 2014 at 02:45 | #6

    I have to agree with the previous comments when it comes to how interesting this blog post is. However, I disagree that the competitive elements inherent in gay men and women of both sexual orientations is a strictly American thing. Rather, I believe competitiveness in a search for a mate is cross cultural and a result of evolution. What I think would be an interesting follow up study would be to examine if gay men and women would be able to differentiate between homosexuals and heterosexuals through facial recognition. Would the recognition of someone with your sexual orientation also be a bias similar to the own-age or own-race bias? This article is not only unique but I think it could also easily be expanded.

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