AotD: Participant Sexual Orientation Matters

Article of the Day:

Participant Sexual Orientation Matters – New Evidence on the Gender Bias in Face Recognition

by Steffens, M.C., Landmann, S., & Mecklenbräuker, S. (2013)

(Experimental Psychology, 60(5), 362–367. DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169/a000209)


Background & Research

The processing, evaluation and recognition of faces is central to human interaction, and thus of great interest to psychological theories, in particular from the point of view of social cognition. A great deal of research already exists on these issues. As regards correct recognition of previously seen faces, previous research indicates that people remember and recognize faces similar to themselves in terms of “race” and age better, and that women recognize more faces in general as compared to men and recognize female faces better than male faces. The results on men have been more inconclusive.

In light of the importance of faces and facial features in sexual attraction, the authors of this article posit some of these gender differences may in fact represent sexual orientation differences. Some previous research articles report on the sexual orientation of participants, but some do not, and some seem to have taken a plainly heterosexist attitude to the issue (declaring it a non-issue, that is).

To investigate the moderating effects of sexual orientation on the gender bias in face recognition, the authors report on an online study of 1147 participants, over-sampling gay and lesbian participants on purpose, who were shown 32 female and male faces for one second each, and after a brief break, attempted to identify whether another 64 faces shown to them were old (previously shown) or new.

Results  & Discussion

As expected, women recognized more faces than men overall. Looking at sexual orientation, both heterosexual women and lesbians recognized more female than male faces correctly, but while heterosexual men also demonstrated a pro-female gender bias, gay men displayed a pro-male bias. In other words, an interaction of participant gender, participant sexual orientation, and photo gender was found, indicating that sexual orientation mattered for the gender bias in correct recognition of faces, but only for men.

To explain the differences in facial recognition between the genders and people of different sexual orientations, the authors refer to a memory bias towards potential mating partners, in the first place. As each face was presented to the participants for a very short time, any differences in recognition are likely to depend on long-term interest in particular types of faces, rather than simply differential attention. Since it is well established that facial features are an important part of the attractiveness of a potential partner (at least for men), it makes sense people would, mostly due to learning effects, be better at remembering and recognizing the faces of people they consider potential partners than of those they do not

So, what remains to be explained is why heterosexual women do not follow this trend, but in fact recognize female faces better. One reason the authors point out is that, for potential mating partners, women do not seem to consider facial attractiveness as important as men. Further, evolutionary psychologists argue that heterosexual women are more interested in the attractiveness of other women due to perceiving them as threats to their own relationships, which may not be the case for men, because the “threat level” of other men does not seem to depend so much on their facial attractiveness. The authors also point out that outer appearances in general are treated as more important for women than men in Western cultures. This may explain why people should generally develop more expertise for judging the appearance of women.

How significant these sexual orientation differences might have been in previous studies that did not report on them remains an open question, but it is possible they account for some of the inconclusive findings regarding men. Certainly in this study, the differences between gay and heterosexual men were apparent and significant.  Thus, taking this issue into account in future studies of facial recognition is vital. More widely, while ethical instructions for research publications indicate sexual orientation should not be unnecessarily mentioned, the authors argue it may be relevant in more types and fields of research than commonly assumed, even as regards quite basic research such as that reported on here. There may be other cases where gender-correlated findings are in fact moderated or better explained by sexual orientation effects.


This rather simple and straightforward research nicely demonstrates how a complex human phenomenon such as sexual orientation can affect a process as fundamental as facial memory. The basic explanation for the results obtained of paying more attention to faces of potential mates and thus becoming more proficient at recognizing them makes sense both evolutionarily and from a learning theory perspective. Quite believable accounts for the differing results for heterosexual women are also provided.

A question not addressed by the authors is that there exist, of course, significant problems in dividing participants into binary categories such as “gay” and “straight”, and even “women” and “men”. Indeed, in the study presented here, 193 (13.9 %) of initial participants could not be accurately placed in these simple categories, and were excluded from the results. In a study such as this, where the moderating effect of sexual orientation was the main object of study, purposefully leaving out participants with more mixed or complex gender and sexual identities seems problematic. When sexual orientation or attraction is relevant to research, it would seem wiser to do away with binary categories and employ something like Likert scales or degrees of attraction instead. That way, those not fitting the traditional categories could be included, and further, more sophisticated interactions could perhaps be teased out (e.g., as regards this study, is it simply the case that one will better recognize faces of the gender one is more attracted to regardless of the degree, or does a little bit of interest in men already make a man a little better at recognizing male faces).

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