Global or Local? Gay or Eurotrash? Navon figure flanked by two game pieces from Gay or EUROtrash? the ultimate gaydar game!
Believe it or not, there's an article in the new journal Frontiers in Cognition1 entitled "Sexual orientation biases attentional control: a possible gaydar mechanism" (Colzato et al., 2010). What is "gaydar"? And why on earth would one think of studying the allocation of attention to global and local visual perceptual features in relation to gaydar? Here's why:
Individuals with a homosexual orientation are often believed to have a “telepathic sixth sense” (Reuter, 2002) for recognizing each other, an ability that is often referred to as gaydar (Shelp, 2002) – a portmanteau of gay and radar. Even though perceivable differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals may not be salient to everyone, some studies revealed subtle but distinctive features that homosexuals tend to share, such as coiffure (Rule et al., 2008), body-movement and gesturing style (Ambady et al., 1999), speech patterns (Linville, 1998), and penile size (Bogaert and Hershberger, 1999).2 Hence, there is a rich perceptual basis for people to develop a reliable gaydar, and homosexuals are apparently better trained in making use of it.To test the possible perceptual basis of gaydar, the authors made use of Navon figures (1977), which are comprised of small letters that form a larger letter. The characters can be the same or different, as shown below.
Navon (1977) demonstrated that global visual features take precedence over the local ones ("forest before trees"). When in conflict, the large letter (global) interferes with the ability to identify the smaller letters (local), but local features do not hinder the ability to identify global features. Colzato et al. (2010) reasoned that gay individuals might need to focus on specific and local perceptual cues in order to correctly identify others with the same (or different) sexual orientation. Hence, the global precedence effect was predicted to be smaller in gay people than in straight people.
To test this hypothesis, 42 Dutch participants (25 male and 17 female) were recruited for the study. On a multidimensional Kinsey-like scale (with seven variables each scored from 1-7), half were self-identified as straight (1.0) and the other half as gay (6.5). The stimuli were composed of large and small rectangles and/or triangles. Participants made button press responses to stimulus shape, based on the stimulus dimension (global or local) that was cued on each trial. The results demonstrated that the gay group did indeed show a smaller global precedence effect than the straight folk (see below).
Figure 1 (Colzato et al., 2010). Mean global precedence effect for homosexuals and heterosexuals. Vertical capped lines atop bars indicate standard error of the mean.
Heterosexuals were 68 msec faster to respond to global than to local features, but homosexuals were only 40 msec faster. The groups differed for this main effect of global/local dimension... but we don't know about the interaction with congruity. Nor do we know anything about potential male/female differences, because those weren't reported either. Nonetheless, results are consistent with the interpretation that gay men and women might have a relative bias towards detail-oriented processing when compared to heterosexuals.
Now sexual orientation can join the other studies of group identity and attention to global vs. local features. These same authors previously showed that Dutch Calvinists (who have an independent view of the self) show a smaller global precedence effect than Dutch atheists (Colzato et al., 2008). Other research has demonstrated that participants raised in collectivist Asian cultures tend to be more globally-oriented than individualistic North American participants (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). What might all this mean?
From a more general perspective, our findings add to previous observations that being a member of a particular social group seems to shape cognitive-control operations in specific ways – whether this group is defined by shared culture, religious practice or, as the present study suggests, shared sexual orientation.
1 The bar for article titles in this journal has been set pretty high, since the other two papers are DOOM'd to switch: superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooter games and Games with(out) Frontiers: toward an integrated science of human cognition.
2 Yes, the mean size is larger in gay men. On all five measures of penile length and circumference from Kinsey's original protocol (Bogaert & Hershberger, 1999).
Colzato LS, van den Wildenberg WP, Hommel B. (2008). Losing the big picture: how religion may control visual attention. PLoS One 3:e3679.
Colzato, L., van Hooidonk, L., van den Wildenberg, W., Harinck, F., & Hommel, B. (2010). Sexual orientation biases attentional control: a possible gaydar mechanism. Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00013
Masuda T, Nisbett RE. (2001). Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. J Pers Soc Psychol. 81:922–934. PDF
Navon D. (1977). Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception. Cognitive Psych. 9:353–383.
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