The eyes have it: Sexual orientation and perception of invisible images

An interesting study out Monday suggests that sexual attractions direct primary appraisal (unconscious attention). What one pays attention to may relate to one’s sexual orientation. The study, “A gender- and sexual orientation-dependent spatial attentional effect of invisible images” by Jiang, Costello, Fang, Huang & He and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science masked nude images of men and women in such a way as to make them virtually invisible. They found however, that the attention of the participants were consistent with their sexual attractions. Gay men preferred to look at nude men, straight men at nude women and women were moderately focused on nude men but with a mixed response to pictures of women. I calculated effect sizes for the differences and they are huge. Sexual orientation accounts for nearly half of the variance in attention. Along with the pheromone and serotonin challenge studies, this new work adds to the idea that sexual orientation differences are quite substantial, no matter how they came to be.

I will update this as I am able.

19 thoughts on “The eyes have it: Sexual orientation and perception of invisible images”

  1. Here’s an odd post from the NARTH blog. It just shows how convoluted self-deception can be:

    “Just a thought. Because someone is behaving in a homosexual identity does not mean they are homosexual either.”

    Huh? Let’s give this person an IQ test in addition to the eye test.

  2. Hmmm… Being misled and betrayed by “overpromises”…

    This comes very close to Webster’s definition of quackery: “characterized by pretentious claims with little or no foundation”, “dishonestly claiming to effect a cure.”

    Come on. Why would anyone get hostile about that?

  3. Mr Blakeslee said:

    “Ex-ex-gays, I know, have felt misled and betrayed by “overpromises,” but the implied hostility here needs to be addressed.”

    In my opinion, being a bit “hostile” is a perfectly understandable human response to being “misled and betrayed by overpromises” of reparative therapy organizations.

    Why does that need to be “addressed”? If a car salesman had misled and overpromised, wouldn’t Mr. Blakeslee be upset? The anger of ex-ex-gays is justified. Maybe the liars should stop lying.

  4. Mr. Blakeslee: I’ll admit it. I’m hostile. Maybe “fed up” is more accurate.

    I am tired of NARTH pretending to be scientific, tired of EXODUS’s alliance with with wing politics and frankly, tired of 30 years of excuses from reparative therapists — blaming gay activists for their lack of good scientific evidence to back up their “reorientation” claims. ENOUGH ALREADY!

    More than that, I am angry with the repetitive message that gays are sick, sinful. disordered and broken — and need to be “repaired”. You might feel hostile too if you had been told since early childhood that being straight was a disorder and that you would burn in Hell if you didn’t become gay. Can’t you see that such messages are highly offensive? Such message also harm people — particularly the young and vulnerable.

    I know personally that at least four of the high profile leaders of EXODUS (back in the 70’s) were still actively gay — even though we claimed we were not. Then, you have guys like John Paulk claiming that he “didn’t realize” he was hanging out in a gay bar. There are lots of other examples.

    So, no, I don’t trust that exgays are honest. Sincere, yes. But often sincerely self-deluded and in denial. (As in, I am still homosexually oriented but I’m not a homosexual. I’m “formerly gay identified” now.) WHAT???

    The history of reparative therapy is absolutely littered with false advertizing, quack cures, deliberately misleading terms (like ex-gay), inflated promises and leaders who claim to be what they are not.

    Maybe lie detectors aren’t the answer. What are we supposed to do? Just take ex-gays at their word that their orientation has changed? How scientific is that?

    I feel like the Cuba Gooding character who keeps yelling at Tom Cruise to “show me the money”. I will be less “hostile” when reparative therapy groups (1)define their terms, (2) clearly outline their therapetuic methods,(3) present some real evidence of change (not just inspiring anecdotes), (4) and disentangle themselves from right wing politics.

    In the meantime, show me the science.

  5. Is anyone else offended by the implied accusation of using “lie detector tests”?

    I’m not offended, but that may be because I’m not being asked to take one. 😉 I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot, I would be.

    There really is no such thing as a “lie-detector”. Polygraphs are notoriously subjective and can be defeated. I don’t think this line of inquiry is very productive.

    But I think comparing eye movement toward masked nude images to self-reports gets at the heart of what we might be looking for — the psychological measure that confirms self-self reports.

    The only other psychological measure I’m aware of is phalometric testing (also known as plethysmography). But its reliability is somewhat one-sided. Test subjects can falsify results by supressing their responses, but it is very difficult to initiate a response where there is no sexual attraction (although general nervousness can cause a false response). It is also highly subjective when used for individual diagnostics as opposed to research based on larger samples. I suspect this may not be of much use here. And besides that, it’s exceptionally invasive.

    Are there other measures which are reasonably reliable?

  6. Is anyone else offended by the implied accusation of using “lie detector tests”?

    Ex-ex-gays, I know, have felt misled and betrayed by “overpromises,” but the implied hostility here needs to be addressed.

    (A better word is physiological measures which confirm self-reports)

    David Blakeslee

  7. Re: the lie dector tests — I believe that exgays have an incentive to lie — especially to themselves, and often do. They want SO much to believe that they are no longer homosexual that they convince themselves that they are straight. I did this. Gary did this. Keep in mind that your eternal destiny (not just accpetance by church, family and society) depends on what you call yourself or how your define your “identity”.

    Lie detector tests might help to show whether or not a research subject is lying about PREVIOUS sexual attractions and behaviors. They might also reveal if the subject is being truthful when he says he no longer finds men sexually attractive, no longer has sex with them and no longer masturbates to gay fantasies.

    If the exgay passes the lie detector test — and the “unconscious attention eye test” is consistent with the self-report, then I would think reparative therapists mights finally have the tools they need to convince their skeptics. Will NARTH or EXODUS do this even if they had sufficient funding? I strongly doubt it. They woouldn’t want to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

  8. I would be interested in finding out how bisexual men do on this test. There was a study about a year ago that suggested that bisexuality doesn’t exist in men. What are your thoughts on that study by the way?

  9. The generalization you speak of seems to be infrequent. I do know a handful of men who say this and a fewer number of women but then I have not asked the question in just that way to many people. Anyone reading the blog who wants to step and say so, please feel free.

  10. Unless there were before and after studies I don’t see how it could tell much, especially with bisexuals. However, before and after studies would be VERY interesting as it could answer the question as to whether there is a real change in orientation on a subconscious level.

    BTW Warren, do you know of many ex-gay men that claim to have newly gained attraction to the opposite sex, generally (rather than just to one woman)? The only ones I can think of offhand are Richard Cohen and Stephen Bennett, neither of which I consider to be particularly credible.

    But that may just be a lack of available info on my part.

  11. The attention paradigm seems reliable but lie detector tests are not. One could not rely on the results as meaning much of anything. They could be skewed one way or the other pretty dramatically.

  12. If the eyes don’t lie, then we would finally have a way to prove or disprove some of the wilder claims by exgays that they have changed their orientation, not just their “identity” or overt behavior. Let’s see NARTH and EXODUS agree to put their clients to the test. It’s time for them to put up or shut up.

    I think the lie detector would still be necessary to back up some exgays claims that they have stopped having gay sex, that they don’t masturbate to gay fantasies, etc. It seems we now have the technology to prove or disprove the claims of repartive therapists. Let’s use it, if EXODUS and NARTH are really interested in truth.

    I think we would find what Joe Dallas of EXODUS already admitted: ex-gays are really “Christians WITH homosexual tendencies who would rather not HAVE those tendencies.”

    That doesn’t make them “ex”. They are still homosexually oriented. It’s time to face facts.

  13. PS – My main interest would be in assessing those people who believe they have added opposite sex attractions to a previous exclusive same-sex adjustment. Those who have always felt some of both would not be as interesting, strictly speaking (although I would want a group of these individuals).

  14. Timothy:

    In this study the bisexual women had responses that were consistent with bisexuality and so for those ex-gays that said they were attracted to both men and women, I would expect to see a mixed result. For those who say they are no longer attracted to the same sex, I guess this would help at least provide some indication of initial involuntary attention. It still would not assess intention to act or values about acting. Self-report will just have to do on those points.

  15. I’m not sure using this method for ex-gays would prove anything at all.

    I only know of two that claim that they are fully heterosexual and most ex-gays (that have testimonies on line, anyway) seem to indicate that they retain some measure of same-sex attraction. Even those who go on to marry seem to indicate that they are not attracted to women in general but only to a woman in particular.

    Thus it would not be inconsistent that their subconcious eye would be attracted to the same sex… unless the other pictures were all of their wife. 🙂

    Or perhaps there is some pool of ex-gay straights out there that I don’t know about.

  16. Anon – I have written the study authors about this possibility. If you are serious, contact me via email – we may need it.

    No need to hook anyone up to a lie detector, Michael. The involuntary nature of the process would function in that manner. I sincerely would like to do such a study but have yet to learn what the technical requirements would be. It is an intriguing possibility.

  17. I am against trying to change someone’s sexual orientation, but I would put up $1,000 to help fund this same study using exgays as subjects.

  18. So…”sexual attractions direct primary appraisal (unconscious attention). What one pays attention to may relate to one’s sexual orientation.”

    What a surprise. This reinforces what gay people have been saying for years — that sexual orientation is not a conscious choice.

    It also may finally provide a way for reparative therapists to prove that reorientation therapy actually works. Let’s see what kind of hidden images exgays might unconsciously pay attention to. Then hook them up to lie detectors to double-check their truthfulness about their overt behavior and conscious desires.

    Anybody want to bet what the results might be?

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