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Brief Conversation Can Change Minds on Gay Marriage

New research finds speaking with an openly gay canvasser about the issue can produce a lasting shift in views.
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(Photo: David Goehring/Flickr)

(Photo: David Goehring/Flickr)

In matters of politics and ideology, most of us are pretty certain about our beliefs, and are highly reluctant to change them. So how do we explain the huge shift in attitudes about gay marriage?

In recent years, an enormous number of people have given up the bigoted notion that gay relationships are less important or meaningful than straight ones. Gay friends and family members with the courage to speak openly have received part of the credit, as have gay characters on television.

But according to a just-published paper, a change of heart doesn't require a continuing conversation with your gay (who knew?) cousin. Rather, a 20-minute talk with a stranger will do—if that person is openly gay, and discusses the issue in personal terms.

What’s more, the impact of such a brief talk can persist for months, and spread to other members of one’s household. Open-mindedness, it seems, is contagious.

“When those being denied marriage equality have names and faces, hearts and minds are changed,” said lead author Michael LaCour, a political scientist at the University of California-Los Angeles. His paper, co-authored with Columbia University political scientist Donald Green, is published in the journal Science.

The impact of such a brief talk can persist for months, and spread to other members of one’s household. Open-mindedness, it seems, is contagious.

The study featured 972 Southern California voters who were recruited to participate in an online survey. They first filled out a 50-item questionnaire that revealed their attitudes about a variety of social and political issues. Included were two items: one about same-sex marriage, and another that revealed their general feelings about gay people.

They filled out similar surveys at various points over the next 45 days, and a final one after 280 days. (So, whenever possible, did their spouses or housemates.) Items were added and subtracted for each round of the survey, but the original ones about gays and same-sex marriage were always included.

Not long after filling out the initial survey, most participants were paid a visit by a canvasser who discussed a specific issue with them for an average of 22 minutes. Half of the conversations concerned gay marriage, while the others focused on the importance of recycling. Twenty-two of the canvassers were gay, while the other 19 were straight.

Those who discussed same-sex unions “invited voters to share their experiences with marriage,” the researchers write. “This script was the same for gay and straight canvassers, with one important exception. After establishing rapport with the voter, midway through the conversation, gay canvassers revealed that they are gay or lesbian and they would like to get married, but that the law prohibits (such unions).”

Straight canvassers addressed the issue from a one-step-removed position, describing how a gay child, friend, or relative would like to get married, but was stymied by current law. After this bit of personal disclosure, all invited the voter to share his or her thoughts on the issue.

Three days after this visit, participants filled out a follow-up survey (which, to their knowledge, was unrelated to their talk with the canvasser). Those who had engaged in a heart-to-heart talk about gay marriage significantly shifted their opinion, expressing more support for the concept than they did in the first questionnaire.

But for many, this change of mind proved transitory.

“Those who discussed same-sex marriage with straight canvassers quickly reverted to their baseline opinions,” the researchers report. “Ninety percent of the initial treatment effect dissipated a month after the conversation with canvassers.”

“In contrast,” they write, “among those who discussed same-sex marriage with gay canvassers, the (change of mind) remained unabated after one month,” and was still significant nine months later.

Furthermore, “Although housemates did not receive the gay equality measure directly, our evidence strongly suggests that they were influenced by second-hand exposure,” LaCour and Green write. “Six months later, cohabitants of those who spoke with gay canvassers about same-sex marriage were (significantly) more supportive of same-sex marriage than cohabitants of those who spoke with gay canvassers about recycling.”

(A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage was handed down during the course of the experiment. The researchers found a subsequent surge in support immediately afterwards, but it quickly abated among most study participants. The exception was, again, those who had spoken about the issue with a gay canvasser.)

So why did that short conversation make such a difference? One hint can be found in the participants’ rating of how “warm” they consider gay people (on a scale of 0 to 100).

“Voters who spoke with gay canvassers about same-sex marriage offered average ratings that were 15.1 points higher than the scores they registered at baseline,” the researchers write. “The same-sex marriage script produced no such long-term direct or spillover effects when delivered by straight canvassers.”

So it seems that, in LaCour and Green’s words, “active contact is capable of producing a cascade of enduring opinion change.” But their findings suggest this only occurs under specific circumstances: When someone can establish a rapport with a voter, and then discuss how an issue specifically impacts him or her.

Could this work if black men would go door to door in white neighborhoods to talk about how they are treated by police? It’s not clear. Race, unlike sexual orientation, is instantly apparent, and thus can immediately trigger defensiveness. As a result, establishing that all-important emotional connection may be more difficult.

But given the gulf between the races on this issue, it's certainly worth a try.