We are remarkably good at making quick judgments of people. In an analysis of choices made during speed dating, the authors comment, “HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their judgments, but they mostly could be made in three seconds.” Not too surprisingly, these quick choices are made on the basis of physical appearance. For men in the HurryDate study, choices were dominated by a woman’s thinness. Women preferred men who were physically attractive, young, medium build, and of a similar race to themselves.

Nalini Ambady and Nicholas Rule have extended our understanding of these quick judgments to sexual orientation. Men and women viewed 90 faces of homosexual and heterosexual men for periods of time varying from 33 msec to 10 seconds. When given at least 100 msec (1/10th of a second) or more, participants judged the men’s sexual orientation accurately at least 70% of the time. Increasing exposure beyond 100 msec did not improve accuracy. We are either correct very quickly or we continue to be incorrect.

We have to wonder which features are most helpful in making this distinction. We know that women do an excellent job of perceiving which men will score high or low on an infant interest questionnaire (perhaps predicting a man’s interest in being a good father), and that this distinction is based on the “masculinity” of the face (strong jaw, heavy brows, etc.)[2]. Hopefully, researchers will follow up on Ambady and Rule to figure out what exactly we see in 100 msec.

1.  Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (in press). Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

2.  Penton-Voak, I.S., Cahill, S., Pound, N., Kempe, V., Schaeffler, S., & Schaeffler, F. (2007. Male facial attractiveness, perceived personality, and child-directed speech. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(4), 253-259.