September 9, 2009

The Eyes Have It

Snap judgments—in this case about who is straight and who is not—turn out to be surprisingly accurate

By Marjorie Howard

Last year psychology graduate student Nicholas Rule helped conduct a study showing that people could tell almost instantly if someone was gay just by looking at a man’s eyes. And, he discovered, a quick decision was more accurate than one in which a subject took more time to think about it.

Now Rule, G10, and his co-authors have done a follow-up study and have once again demonstrated that snap judgments work better than deliberation.

“These studies give us insight into what the brain and mind are actually doing when making judgments and how we generally perceive people,” says Nicolas Rule. Photo: iStock

This time the study asked subjects to look at photos of 98 self-identified straight women and 94 self-identified lesbians, all of whom were white and in their 20s. Only faces were shown, and none had piercings or jewelry. Twenty-one undergraduates viewed the photographs and 64 percent of the time they were correct in choosing whether the woman was straight or lesbian. In a second test, subjects saw only the eyes, not the full face, and 53 percent of the time they were still able to make the right choice.

“These studies,” says Rule, “give us insight into what the brain and mind are actually doing when making judgments and how we generally perceive people.”

The researchers, whose work was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in July, wanted to go further. Two groups of undergraduates were shown the full-face photos; one group was told to make a decision as quickly as possible, while the other group was told to take their time and be deliberate. The snap judgment group had an accuracy rate of 58 percent, while those who took longer to think about it were correct 53 percent of the time.

“The everyday experience people have,” says Rule, “is that they assume they are not able to tell if someone is gay or straight or lesbian or straight. They over think it and are analytical; they’d be better off not thinking about it.” Rule’s co-authors on the study are Nalini Ambady, professor and Neubauer Faculty Fellow in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and Katherine C. Hallett, A10.

Rule and his colleagues are continuing to learn more about how people form impressions and have now turned their attention to religious groups. A study they conducted on whether subjects could identify if a person is a follower of a particular religion will be published later this fall in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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