Ambiguous group membership is extracted automatically from faces

Nicholas O. Rule, C. Neil Macrae, Nalini Ambady

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


To economize the demands of person perception, individuals quickly and accurately categorize others into groups (Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000). Indeed, for groups with salient perceptual markers (e.g., sex, age, race), category activation is deemed to be an unavoidable consequence of the person-perception process (Bargh, 1999; Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990). But what about social groups with less obvious physical cues, do they also trigger automatic person categorization? Recent data hint that this may, indeed, be the case. Take, for example, male sexual orientation. Although the cues to male sexual orientation are ostensibly ambiguous (yielding categorization accuracy of approximately 60–70% against a chance guessing rate of 50%), differences between gay and straight men can be judged significantly better than chance following very brief exposure to a target (i.e., 50 ms; Rule & Ambady, 2008) and can modulate incidental memory for previously encountered faces (Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2007). What these findings suggest is that, like sex, age, and race, information pertaining to male sexual orientation may be extracted automatically from faces (see Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2008). To explore this possibility, we employed a lexical decision task in which participants responded to gay and straight verbal associates after the presentation of facial primes. If exposure to a face is sufficient to trigger category activation (i.e., information pertaining to sexual orientation), performance should be facilitated on prime-congruent trials.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)441-443
Number of pages3
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2009


  • male sexual orientation


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