This post picks up on a recent post, The Psychology of Anti-Gay Prejudice: Part I.
As I mentioned in the previous post, any specific form of prejudice is complex, erupting from multifaceted origins that express themselves uniquely. Still, testing distinct origins of sexual prejudice and other forms of LGBT prejudice gives us new insight into this important social issue and sheds light on the steps needed to address it.
Family Values and Anti-Gay Prejudice
Another origin of sexual prejudice is the endorsement of traditional family values. The more people’s idea of a functioning family strictly involves a father and a mother, the more they dislike homosexual others. One way researchers have found this relationship is simply by looking at the reliable correlations between “traditional family ideology” and anti-gay attitudes.
To test this origin of sexual prejudice with an experiment, one study simply primed people to think about traditional family values or not. Everyone in this study got a copy of the front page of a newspaper to read. At the top of the page was a little preview for an unrelated article that was printed somewhere else in the paper. For half of the people, the preview was a picture of a happy traditional family with the headline “Happy Family Gatherings” and for everyone else, the preview was a picture of some flowers with the headline “Spring Flowers in Bloom.”
The idea here is that some people were subtly encouraged to think in terms of traditional family structures and other people weren’t.
The main reason that people were looking at the newspaper, though, was to read the main story, which was about a single father and his son. In it, a kid named Billy came home from school, and his dad wasn’t there and couldn’t be reached by phone. At the end of the story, everyone was asked to provide their opinions of Billy’s dad.
The story itself, however, was slightly different for some people than for others. For half of the readers, the story suggests that Billy’s dad is gay (e.g., he’s dating someone named Alexander) and for everyone else, the story suggests that Billy’s dad is straight (e.g., he’s dating someone named Alexandra). In both cases, the article clarifies that Billy isn’t bothered by his father’s dating.
The results of this study showed that the “gay” vs. “straight” distinction only mattered when people were primed with the notion of traditional families.
When you look at readers’ ratings of Billy’s dad, in the control condition (with the flowers at the top of the newspaper), the ratings weren’t any different when people thought the father was gay vs. straight. When they were primed to think of a traditional family, however, if people thought the father was gay, they rated him much more negatively than if they thought he was straight.
Reducing LGBT Prejudice
So what can we do to minimize sexual prejudice? It’s encouraging that negative attitudes toward homosexuals are indeed on the decline, but such prejudice remains pervasive. For instance, 1,461 hate crimes related to sexual orientation were reported in 2013, according to FBI records.
Reducing prejudice, of course, isn’t easy, and it requires addressing an intricate web of social norms, values, and beliefs. Research in psychology, however, has taken initial steps to understand how to reduce prejudice, and one form of prejudice reduction may apply well to sexual prejudice: the “contact hypothesis.”
According to the contact hypothesis, prejudice decreases when people from opposing groups have to actually work together (given that a number of conditions are met).
Some data speak to the power of simple contact as a means of reducing sexual prejudice. According to this research, knowing at least one gay or lesbian person is associated with significantly less sexual prejudice. In fact, other data show that knowing at least one gay or lesbian person is also associated with taking more political or social action to reduce sexual prejudice among others.
We should interpret these results with caution, however, because they are simply correlations. There’s no guarantee necessarily that getting heterosexual people to make friends with sexual minorities will cause a decrease in prejudice. Mere “contact” isn’t always enough. Nevertheless, these relationships and emerging trends are an encouraging first step.
Where Are We Headed?
As historic as the recent Supreme Court decision is, it is but one important step out of many. From Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice to modern research on prejudice and discrimination, social psychologists have devoted countless hours to scientifically understanding the origins and expressions of prejudice.
Although this research can satisfy intellectual curiosity, perhaps its more important contribution has been to serve as the first steps toward developing effective ways to reduce prejudice. To find medical treatments it’s helpful to know what the root causes of the problem are. Similarly, the more we can understand about the origins of sexual prejudice, the better equipped people will be to develop effective ways of reducing it.