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Anti-Gay Bias Is Even Diminishing on an Unconscious Level

A new study finds expressions of more accepting attitudes toward homosexuals are not just lip service.
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(Photo: Ivonne Wierink/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ivonne Wierink/Shutterstock)

According to polls, Americans' attitudes toward gay and lesbians have grown decidedly more positive over the past decade. But how deep does this shift really go? 

Is anti-gay bias truly dissipating, or are people who profess a newfound open-mindedness not being entirely truthful, perhaps even to themselves?

Good news: It's real. That's the conclusion of a just-published study that measured the unconscious attitudes of nearly two-thirds of a million people over an eight-year stretch.

The study finds that, between 2006 and 2013, implicit preference for straight people over gays and lesbians declined 13.4 percent. That's significantly lower than the 26-percent drop in explicit, or stated, preference during that same time period. But it strongly suggests that, while change is occurring more slowly on an unconscious level, it is happening.

Between 2006 and 2013, implicit preference for straight people over gays and lesbians declined 13.4 percent.

"People today are genuinely more positive toward gay and lesbian people than they were just a decade ago," says University of Virginia psychologist Erin Westgate, the paper's lead author. "The research shows that attitudes are truly changing. It's not just a function of people feeling less comfortable admitting their bias in a culture that has become more open."

Westgate and co-authors Rachel Riskind and Brian Nosek utilized data from the Project Implicit website, which is designed to educate the public about our hidden biases and collect research data on unconscious attitudes. Anyone interested can sign in and take one or more tests designed to root out biases we may not realize we hold.

For this study, the researchers looked at results from the 683,976 people who took the site's Implicit Association Test on "sexuality" between February 6, 2006, and August 10, 2013. All respondents provided detailed demographic information. The average age was 25, and 83.3 percent were American residents. Eighty percent identified as heterosexual, 10.4 percent gay, and 9.6 percent bisexual.

Participants first expressed their explicit attitudes toward homosexuality via a seven-point scale that ranged from "I strongly prefer straight people to gay people" to "I strongly prefer gay people to straight people." They then took a test in which they were asked to quickly react to various images and words that flashed onto a computer screen.

While the procedure is somewhat complicated—see the full description here—if it takes a participant longer to press a button associating a positive word such as "good" with an image signifying gay people (such as a wedding cake featuring two grooms) than of one suggestive of straight people, an implicit anti-gay bias has been revealed.

"Nearly all demographic groups showed weakening of implicit preferences for straight people over gay people over time."

The researchers found that, during the seven-and-a-half years the data was collected, "nearly all demographic groups showed weakening of implicit preferences for straight people over gay people over time." The biggest shifts occurred among Hispanic, white, female, politically liberal, and young adult participants. The smallest were among blacks, Asians, men, political conservatives, and older adults.

"These are also the groups that held the strongest overall preferences for straight people," Westgate and her colleagues write. "The two findings together offer a speculative interpretation: Substantial explicit change may occur first, and perhaps enable the slower implicit change that occurs later."

These results, published in the University of California Press' new open-access journal Collabra, are particularly interesting in the light of a separate study published last summer. Using data from Project Implicit's race-based tests, that study found unconscious bias against certain religious (Muslim) and ethnic (Hispanic) groups remains quite strong.

For whatever reason, gays and lesbians are faring better, even in the deep recesses of people's minds.

"We anticipate that most social change starts with large attitude changes within a subset of society, and eventually ripples out to produce small changes in all members of society," Westgate and her colleagues conclude. "In the early 21st century, we appear to be bearing witness to this effect for evaluation of lesbian women and gay men."

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.