Although knowing an actor is gay substantially affects ratings of his masculinity, there is no significant effect on ratings of his acting performance, researchers say.

Authors of recent news columns have claimed that an "out" actor cannot convincingly play a heterosexual because knowledge of that actor's gay orientation will bias an audience's perceptions of his performance. A team of researchers decided to test this hypothesis by conducting a three-condition experiment. Led by Paul Merritt, a professor at Clemson University, the researchers published their findings in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

Nearly 400 college students participated in the study by first reading information about a male actor from a fictional Facebook page indicating the actor was gay, straight, or did not say. After answering questions about his fictional Facebook page, which also included a photograph and other basic demographic information, the students in the study watched the actor's video audition monologue. Having viewed the monologue, participants rated the actor's performance as well as the personal characteristics of the actor himself.

"Early research showed that people tend to perceive a direct connection between sexual orientation and established gender roles, especially in the entertainment industry," said Merritt. "However, these new findings indicate that knowledge of an actor's sexual orientation doesn't necessarily cause their performance to be perceived in light of stereotypes about gays and lesbians."

Being "out" may reduce perceptions of masculinity, but this does not necessarily translate into less performance appraisal.

The authors of the study also stressed that their experiment demonstrates the unique opportunity social networking sites provide for studying the potentially biasing effect of biographical information of any kind.

More Facebook-based Research

In an unrelated study published in the Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers investigated the extent to which self-disclosure on Facebook, one of the most highly trafficked social networking sites, can influence perceptions of the profile's author. The study found that students form impressions of the classroom environment based on a professor's Facebook disclosure.

Although the most common goal of college students' use of Facebook is to maintain and strengthen existing friendships, they also use Facebook to gather information about classes and sometimes their professors. (One recent study found that students would rather be Facebook friends with their mother or boss than with their professors.)

Because users of the social media tool must make choices about the level of self-disclosure, researchers sought to understand how that may affect students' perceptions and expectations of his classroom. Participants were 77 female and 33 male undergraduate students from a mid-sized southeastern university (36 percent freshmen, 14 percent sophomores, 12 percent juniors, and 38 percent seniors).

Researchers created six Facebook profiles for a fictitious male professor, each with a specific emphasis: politically conservative, politically liberal, religious, family oriented, socially oriented, or professional. Divided into six groups, undergraduate students randomly viewed one profile and responded to questions that assessed their perceptions and expectations.

The social professor was perceived as less skilled but more popular, while his profile was perceived as inappropriate and entertaining. Students reacted more strongly and negatively to the politically-focused profiles in comparison to the religious, family, and professional profiles. Students reported being most interested in professional information on a professor's Facebook profile, yet they reported being least influenced by the professional profile.

The data demonstrates that students form perceptions about the classroom environment and about their professors based on the specific details disclosed in professors' Facebook profiles. As a rapidly evolving medium, Facebook may be an effective means for professors to stay technologically relevant to their students, but they need to monitor what they self-disclose.

Merritt, PS, Cook, GI, Wang M, Schnarrs, PW, Jack, S. Can a Gay Man Play It Straight? How Being "Out" Influences Perceptions of Masculinity and Performance Appraisal. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Mar 18 , 2013; doi: 10.1037/a0030957. Accessed May 13, 2013.

Sleigh MJ, Smith, AW, Laboe J. Professors' Facebook Content Affects Students' Perceptions and Expectations. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. April 2013; 10.1089. Accessed May 13, 2013.