Growing Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians is Genuine, Sociologists Say

September 18, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Gay pride parade in 2011 at Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo credit: Jordy91/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

Sociologists conducted a study to measure subconscious attitudes toward gays and lesbians, finding that the larger cultural shift toward acceptance is implicit rather than forced by societal views.

Gay and lesbian people have been basking in the celebratory aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, but sociologists have an even more compelling reason for gays and lesbians around the world to rejoice. Accepting attitudes toward gay people are on the rise, and it’s not just for show.

According to a Pew Research poll in 2001, 57 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Now, a poll in 2015 shows that number has dropped to 39 percent. It’s clear that acceptance of homosexuals has been on a steady rise throughout the past years, but many people speculate that others feel pressured to claim that they accept homosexuality just because society is veering in that direction.

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However, that’s not the case. Researchers decided to measure implicit, or subconscious, behaviors toward gays and lesbians to determine whether these attitude changes were genuine or if people just felt less free to publicly voice their prejudices. They found a 13.4 percent drop in subconscious bias toward homosexuals between 2006 and 2013.

Even the researchers themselves were surprised by the finding because it’s nearly impossible for implicit attitudes to undergo such a rapid shift. Erin Westgate, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and study researcher, told Live Science, “Attitude change is real. It’s not just that people feel more pressure to say the politically correct thing.”

Westgate and her colleagues used the Implicit Association Test to measure the impulse reactions of over 680,000 people while categorizing people and concepts. For example, images of straight and gay couples and positive and negative words would flash on the screens to be categorized. If a person feels subconsciously negative toward gay people, they’d be quicker to sort words and images into the categories that link “gay” and “bad” as opposed to “gay” and “good.” Harvard’s Project Implicit has examples of these subconscious attitude tests on a variety of categories for anyone to explore.

Interestingly, the seven-and-a-half years of data showed that there was a 13.4-percent drop in implicit bias, but a 26-percent drop in explicit bias toward gays, which Westgate says is a bit of a mystery. She suggests the gap in the data accounts for one of two possibilities: people simply saying what they perceive to be socially acceptable, or it’s possible that people change their conscious minds first before the belief has time to “trickle down into gut feeling.”

Another oddity in the data was that blacks, Asians, men, conservatives, and older participants in the study showed a smaller drop in implicit bias— but reported the biggest changes in their explicit attitudes. On the contrary, Hispanic, white, female, liberal, and young adult participants showed the biggest drop in implicit bias over the study’s time period. The discrepancy in the data enforces the notion that subconscious attitude changes take time to develop, and many people feel pressured to report an implicit change before it actually happens.

The most exciting aspect of the research is that cultural shifts of implicit attitudes are extremely rare. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that the election of Barack Obama as president didn’t alter subconscious racial attitudes at all.

However, the innate acceptance of gays and lesbians seems to be on a rapid ascent, gaining momentum with each year. "All of this may be accumulating into a larger sense of a cultural shift," says Westgate.

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