The Illusion of Sex Change

Hey people! Just came home from Korcula island. I had a great time, except it was the worst moment to have hosting problems (when images were down). Gladly, all is fixed now! Let’s proceed with new post… In the Illusion of Sex Change, by Richard Russell of Harvard University, two faces are perceived as male and female. However, rest assured that the both faces are actually versions of the same androgynous face (neither male, nor female). One face was created by increasing the contrast of the androgynous face, while the other face was created by decreasing the contrast. The face with more contrast is perceived as female, while the face with less contrast is perceived as male. The Illusion of Sex Change demonstrates that contrast is an important cue for perceiving the sex of a face, with greater contrast appearing feminine, and lesser contrast appearing masculine. This optical illusion won the prize in 2009 optical illusion contest as well.

androgynous face optical illusion

107 Replies to “The Illusion of Sex Change”

  1. how did they get the androgynous fsce in the first place then? this illusion is quite good – i can understand why it won a prize

  2. The face on the left has darker lips, making it look as though “she” is wearing lipstick. Just an observation.

  3. I disagree with this illusion. I tried this on my own with Photoshop. I grabbed the face on the right and did a contrast move on it. It’s still looked like a guy. What they did on the right face was contrast, but they also left lipstick and eye shadow darkening. That’s cheating.

  4. Hmm, must just be me but looks like the same pic but with the contrast changed! Both look female to me. Hope that doesn’t make me odd!

  5. I dunno, to me it looks like the more contrast face is the male one and the less contrast face is the female one.

  6. lol I was just saying that they’re the same faces but one is darker than the other when I read your post and realized that’s exactly what you said…welll not exactly but pretty close. It’s a great illusion but I wonder why people’s faces are percieved as so???? They actually looked like twins to me…

  7. This illusion is cool!

    I’ve always wondered, i mean what is the real difference between a man and a womans face that allows us to tell the difference? We all have 2 eyes, a nose etc. but yeah- so this illusion is cool! The shadows make a huge difference!

    Glad this site is back up and running! But I really think that the systems being down is really rare- migrating is a tad too far. However, if you think it’s for the greater benefit of this site, then i’m backing you all the way :)

  8. i always wanted to know what i look like as a boy. now i know it’s how i look without make up on! thanks joe!

  9. Maybe the higher conrast seems female because women use cosmetics to accent their features? The image on the left looks like there could be just a bit of eyeliner, eye shadow, and lipstick.

  10. Not entirely sure what is meant by more or less contrast but to me at a first glance the left (lighter one) seems more feminine and the right (darker one) seems more masculine.

    But after looking at them both a couple of times i can now look at either one and see a male or a female face.

  11. Weird. I wonder if that’s why it’s easier for a man to (purely facialy) pass as a woman, when wearing make-up? The make up adds contrast to the faces of the more androgenous male face. Thinking just in film and music videos, I can’t think of a convincing female-to-male look without extensive prosthetics and/or elaborate skin texture make up (which presumably reduces contrast). Or it could mean that we just like our stars bishōnen.

  12. That is pretty cool… but I was afraid to look at this one because it had a word in the title that made it seem like this was an innapropiate blog entry. Please only use “Gender” when you mean that. Thanks.

  13. My brain must be broken, cause they both look female to me. One has make-up on, and the other has darker brows and no make-up on.

  14. Actually I can’t tell one from the other. But I often have difficulty telling males from females in photos (and sometimes in real life).

  15. Hmmmm, not an illusion at all. I just see two faces from which I could not tell if they are male or female.

  16. Bloody awesome. For some reason the lower contrast (man) looks more defined or broader or something…


  17. This is a cultural bias thing. Women tend to accentuate their facial features more than men do. Since the left image has stronger contrast, we assume it’s female.

  18. It has as much to do with the fact that both pictures are next to each other as it does how they edited the contrast of each image. Cover either image with your hand and the other looks fairly androgynous.

  19. It all boils down to our brain:

    Men Historically worked, and hence got tan.

    Women stayed inside and ‘made’ babies.

  20. It seems strange that the higher contrast picture does not produce a higher contrast on the lips. The “female” has darker lips than the “male.” I would think that the higher contrast would also produce a higher contrast on the lip color. Maybe that is the illusion. The more defined lips actually is what produces the more “female” appearance.


  21. the one on the left looks more female because the face is brighter and there is better color difference between the lips. the one on the right looks more male because all of the colors blend toghether. in the real world, females tend to have better color differences in their skin/lips because they wear lipgloss and lipstick. females also tend to wear lotions to make their skin appear brighter.

  22. That is an amazing illusion. It sure looks like a different image but if you look at each section piece by piece sure enough it is the same image!

  23. First to vote :) will be raiding other posts too mwhahaha- i thought this one was most interesting out of this page, so i thought i’d give this one a vote, as it doesn’t deserve nil points.

  24. OF course the darker image looks male. Even a very carefully shaved male face is darker just because of the beard.

  25. While I agree that the enhanced light makes the left look slightly more femanine, both images look masculine to me.

  26. i must admit i once considered it.
    very strongly.

    i don’t much about this but

    i think if doctors can do this.
    why not just take a mans penis and transplant it so if a woman changes to a male.
    she has the real deal.

  27. Both are female, you can see by the eyebrows. They are plucked and look very smooth. Although if you replaced the eyebrows on the ‘man’, ‘he’ would look more like a man.

  28. This illusion shows how subtle the human mind is. Given the smallest of differences, it makes a picture of reality. Instantly it decides for you, without you having to think about it. It is not a matter of male of female, right or wrong. We live in a frenetic world of uncertainty, the brain has chosen, and it is up to you to act upon it.

  29. Hmmmm,
    I don’t think the higher contrast face looks feminine, I think both faces look male, but the higher contrast face looks like a younger male, and the low contrast face looks like an older male. This is very interesting…

  30. No wonder girls are moody. Increased contrast.
    Now maybe we’ll start copying this contrast into an RGB color scheme somehow, and start making some car paints.

  31. Remember the illusion of the lit sphere? If the top of the sphere is brighter, it looks like a ball, but if the bottom is brighter, it looks concave. That’s because our brains evolved to interpret light as coming from above (the sun).
    Maybe, in the face images, the variations in shading get interpreted as subtle differences in anatomy, and that’s what gives our brains the gender cues.

  32. This is a terrible experiment, the researchers obviously did not think through their conclusion. The male vs female appearance has nothing to do with color contrast — color contrast is incidental. In reality, the reason why the face on the left looks female and the face on the right looks male is because the “more contrasted” face looks like it is wearing makeup, which we generally associate with females. The effect is purely social priming, based on gender association with makeup, and has nothing to do with contrast.

  33. Well she’s all you’d ever want,
    She’s the kind they’d like to flaunt and take to dinner.
    Well she always knows her place.
    She’s got style, she’s got grace, She’s a winner.
    She’s a Lady. Whoa whoa whoa, She’s a Lady.

  34. Why do you all keep saying they’re both pictures of a woman’s face or one is a man and one is a woman. They aren’t EITHER. “both faces are actually versions of the same androgynous face (neither male, nor female)”
    And this is something we NATURALLY perceive. It isn’t because women “use lotions” or wear lipstick.

  35. For those saying the face is “definitely” male or female, it’s not, it’s the face average of many people of both genders.

  36. I agree wiuth both Leopold and Ye Olde Cake. I mean I could’ve easily just posted a picture of me with my face down or pulled back and a little hair above the lip and who would know the difference. Plus, I am intersexed. I like the study and thought it was two people, a male and female, at first. Oddly enough, I would find either ‘attractive’.

  37. lol I thought both looked female, also because of the eyebrows, I think.
    But I figured the one on the right was more “male”..but I couldn’t figure out why!

  38. not really. i ran a contrast and luiminance test untill i matched the skin color in photoshop and then overlayed the foto of the left which is supposed to perceived as feminine on the one to the right, using a difference algorythm

    what surprise !!! not only has it higher contrast, but if you look really closely they have darkened around the eyes and the lips as well on the left slightly. as women are normally always seen wearing make up, of course the mayor outcome is that this picture would be perceived as female.

    so this is all a bunch of bullshit

  39. alex, you’re a bloody idiot. They turned the contrast up in the left image. Meaning where there are shadows, such as around the lips and eyes, the shadows darken slightly. The white/highlighted parts of the face lighten. the contrast between the two is going to increase, so yeah, it looks like they darkened the shadowed areas. Your “difference algorythm” would only work if you had the original image to test. And you don’t. It is not as if this is a ground-breaking enough study for them to lie about that. It is nothing but a contrast change between the two photos.

  40. yeah, increasing contrast lessens the range of gray in an image, making whites brighter and blacks darker. therefore defining highlights and darkening shadows. lower contrast creates an increased range of gray in the image creating a softer look

  41. The left pic looks female because the higher contrast makes it look like it’s wearing makeup — eyeshadow, eyebrows done, and lipstick.

  42. I actually saw the contrast change and could tell why it was an illusion before reading the explanation :)

  43. I think it’s not only lips showing the difference. Eyebrows too. Females tend to have neater/thinner eyebrows. The fact that left picture is lighter, it affect the eyebrows, they become faded which give the illusion of neater lines. Anyways, female features usually perceived more softer and ligher, so there is no doubt why left photo look like female.

  44. Higher contrast creates the illusion of lip colour and eyelashes. Which is still largely makeup-related (guys’ eyelashes are just as long as girls are), but it makes sense.

  45. yeah it’s the difference in lighting on the face that shows the emphasis on gender in these two pictures, apparently.

  46. I can see no difference in them other than tone. To they look like the same person but photographed with different intensity of light (probably what you guys are talking about with the contrast). I dont see them as female or male either although if I had to guess I say that they are the same person and possibly female because of the softer less agressive facial features (doesnt have a prominent chin/nose, doesnt have heavy eyebrows etc). I really cant see any illusionary effect in this one.

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