A Chat on the Porch Reduces Transphobia

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New research finds a 10-minute conversation can dampen prejudicial attitudes.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Sonja Lovas/Flickr)

Door-to-door may be an outmoded way to sell products, but it’s a surprisingly good way to change minds.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study, which finds a canvas of homeowners in a conservative Miami neighborhood significantly reduced prejudice against members of an ostracized sexual minority.

Researchers found that a 10-minute, empathy-oriented discussion increased acceptance of transgender people among residents of all races and political ideologies. What’s more, this attitude shift persisted for at least three months, and influenced views on a related political issue.

“The findings fill a void by providing prejudice-reduction advocates a feasible and proven strategy,” co-authors David Broockman of Stanford University and Joshua Kalla of the University of California-Berkeley, write in the journal Science. “It may be in (activists’) self-interest to place renewed emphasis on a personal exchange of initially opposing views.”

If the front-door-chat approach sounds familiar, it’s probably because a similarly structured study examining attitudes toward gay marriage was released in 2014 — and retracted six months later. The authors of the new study are the same men who discovered the flaws in that research; their findings suggest that, in spite of the original study’s problems, the knock-and-talk approach to prejudice reduction can indeed work.

A face-to-face talk may be the best way to get people to open their minds and hearts.

The new study was conducted in Miami-Dade County, Florida, which, in 2014, passed an ordinance protecting transgender people from discrimination in housing and employment. It began with a “baseline survey,” in which 1,825 voters were asked their views on a variety of issues, including that ordinance.

Canvassers subsequently came to the door of 501 of the surveyed families. Half of them initiated a conversation about the importance of recycling; the other half talked about transgender rights. (Fifteen of the volunteers who went door to door to talk about the latter issue were transgender, and identified themselves as such; another 41 were not.)

During the conversations, the canvassers encouraged people “to actively take transgender people’s perspectives.” Specifically, they “first asked each voter to talk about a time when they themselves were judged negatively for being different.” They then “encouraged voters to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences.”

Follow-up online surveys were conducted three days, three weeks, six weeks, and three months after the visit. They revealed that “the intervention was broadly successful at increasing acceptance of transgender people,” the researchers report.

Specifically, following the visit, voters who discussed the experiences of transgender people “were considerably more accepting” of such individuals than those who talked about recycling. (Beforehand, the transgender-acceptance scores of both groups were roughly equal.)

“These brief conversations increased positivity toward transgender people, as measured with a survey tool called a ‘feeling thermometer,’ by approximately 10 points — an amount larger than the average increase in positive affect towards gay men and lesbians among Americans between 1998 and 2015,” they write.

Those who discussed transgender issues “remained more accepting in every follow-up survey,” and “were more supportive of the law protecting transgender people from discrimination” than those in the recycling group. “Conversations with transgender and non-transgender canvasses were both effective,” the researchers add.

Broockman and Kalla caution that this approach may not work for other types of bigotry. “Even though transgender people are widely stigmatized, attitudes towards them may be less entrenched than attitudes toward racial minorities,” they note. With transgender rights relatively new to the social-discourse realm, prejudiced assumptions may not have solidified, making attitude adjustments easier.

Nevertheless, this is clearly a promising way to battle bias. In an age when so much communication is conducted over computers, a face-to-face talk may be the best way to get people to open their minds and hearts.

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