It seems, on the face of it, a clever retort to conservative Christians who express prejudicial attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Respond by quoting the words of Jesus Christ — specifically, his admonition, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
There’s just one problem: According to a new study, such reminders of the golden rule are utterly ineffective at changing minds or hearts. And if you emphasize the universality of this message of tolerance by quoting the leader of a different religion, anti-gay attitudes actually harden.
That’s the conclusion of researchers led by York University psychologist Oth Vilaythong Tran. Writing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, they describe a study of 966 self-described Christians or Buddhists who volunteered on the website of Harvard University’s Project Implicit.
To begin the experiment, the participants filled in missing words from a series of quotations. For one-third of of the participants, two of the five quotes were variations on the golden rule, which were attributed to Jesus.
Another third were presented with the same golden rule-related quotations, only in their case, the sayings were attributed to the Buddah. The final third filled in words from unrelated quotes.
Their explicit and implicit attitudes toward gay people were then measured in a series of tests. In addition, they reported their political ideology and level of religiosity.
“We predicted that priming the golden rule would decrease negativity toward gay people, especially when it was attributed to the leader of one’s own religion,” the researchers write. “Instead, the golden rule priming had no effect when communicated by one’s own religious leader.
“However, when the golden rule messages were attributed to the Buddha, Christians self-reported being more explicitly negative toward gay people and more likely to believe that homosexuality is a choice,” they add. “The results suggest that when a tolerant message comes from a religious out-group figure, it does not increase, but may decrease tolerance toward another out-group.”
The researchers concede that the reasons for this are not obvious. “An out-group member’s message of tolerance may be perceived as a negative judgment of the perceiver’s present moral status, rather than as a universal message of compassion,” they note. “Perceivers might be especially sensitive to an implied moral criticism when an out-group member delivers a moral message.”
As to the larger issue of the golden rule’s ineffectiveness, it’s helpful to view these results in the context of Jonathan Haidt’s notion of distinct spheres of morality. In his map of our ethical worlds, fairness and justice occupy one sphere, while anti-gay sentiments fall under another, purity/sanctity. In other words, they stem from deep-seated negative feelings associated with impurity or uncleanliness.
In Haidt’s framework, it’s not surprising that appeals to fairness have no effect. For people such as Christian conservatives who resonate strongly with the notion of purity/sanctity, fairness is not the primary issue when it comes to gay rights. When you perceive something as a threat — however irrational those feelings may be — appeals for tolerance fall upon deaf ears.