Gaydar: a self-reported ability to decipher whether a person is gay or straight, based on physical features, mannerisms, and interests, without having to ask the person for confirmation. While something about it may seem fun, and in some respects useful — you might want to determine if the person is interested in you, after all — the jury’s still out on whether it actually exists. What’s more, could what we perceive as “gaydar” actually be playing on deeply embedded stereotypes, ultimately causing harm?

In a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research, a team of researchers challenged “the myth of gaydar” to unveil how stereotyping plays a major role in profiling sexual orientation. For their study, the researchers looked at a 2008 study that found participants were able to accurately assess someone’s sexual orientation purely by looking at a photo of them. But, when the team reevaluated the photos, it found that the quality of some of the photos of gay and lesbian individuals was different than their heterosexual counterparts, tipping participants off to the right answer.

When the researchers controlled for photo quality and presented them to a new set of participants, the difference between these people was virtually undetectable. The bottom line: You can’t really look at someone and tell they’re gay. So, where are we getting this idea from? Lead author Dr. William Cox, an assistant scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Medical Daily that what we perceive to be an accurate gaydar is actually just the detection of stereotypes that we developed early on from watching movies.

“The gay stereotypes go back to the 20s, 30s, and 40s, where the movies weren’t allowed to portray gay partners and implied men were gay by making them more feminine,” he said. “The Hays Code banned any portrayal of homosexuality, so to show someone was homosexual, they were portrayed as flamboyant, and the audience was made to understand.”

For the second part of the study, Cox’s team manipulated how participants viewed gaydar. One group was told gaydar exists, a second group was told gaydar is stereotyping, and the third was not told anything at all. The team found the group that was made to believe gaydar is legitimate were most likely to stereotype, taking cues like “he likes shopping” as a signal a man was gay.

Cox said that when it comes down to it, gaydar’s legitimacy can be called into question by simple mathematics. Statistically speaking, an astronomically high percentage of gay men would have to exhibit a distinct trait in order for it to be an identifier of homosexuality.

“It has to be above a 19 to 1 ratio. Gay men have to be more than 19 times likely to have a given trait than a straight man,” he said. To date, the biggest difference they know of is that gay men are three times more likely to be alcoholics, but that is not often associated with a stereotype. “And stereotypes, like gay men are more fashionable or more likely to be emotionally expressive is about a 1.5 to 1 ratio.”

Cox also noted that, because less than 5 percent of the population is gay, if a person was to single out a man for exhibiting a stereotypically gay trait, their chances of being right would be pretty miniscule. But yet, we still seem to feel that our perceptions on people’s sexuality are right, and Cox’s new research seems to have an answer for that as well.

“What typically happens is, people see someone wearing a pink shirt [for example] and assume the guy’s gay, but they never actually talk to the person and find out if they’re wrong or right, and that validates the stereotyping.”

But Cox says, the matter isn’t so black and white. Some gay men and women will exhibit some of these stereotypes as part of their personalities and as a way to identify with the gay community, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when stereotyping permits prejudice, we start to have a problem.

“It strips away people’s individuality to stereotype them,” Cox said. And to strip someone of their individuality limits their opportunities in life, allowing prejudice to creep into something we previously perceived as harmless.

Source: Cox W, Devine P, Bischmann A, et al. Inferences About Sexual Orientation: The Roles of Stereotypes, Faces, and The Gaydar Myth. Journal of Sex Research. 2015.