We May Not Be As Accepting As We Think

Now that gay marriage is legal across the United States, many Americans have expressed their support through participation in Pride Weekend events and rainbow social media avatars. But what attitudes lurk behind these surface celebrations? Are Americans really less homophobic than we used to be, or are we just less likely to express our disfavor toward LGBT people? The answer turns out to be "both," according to a new study. While our attitudes toward same-sex couples and the LGBT community have evolved over the past few years, unconscious biases toward heterosexuals linger.

Psychologists led by the University of Virginia's Erin Westgate conducted an online study consisting of nearly 700,000 visitors to the website Project Implicit, which tests people's unstated biases toward different groups, between 2006 and 2013. 83 percent of the subjects were American, and their average age was 25. In addition to rating their agreement with the statements “I strongly prefer straight people to gay people” and “I strongly prefer gay people to straight people” on a five-point scale, participants underwent an "Implicit Association Test," which asked them to categorize different stimuli on a screen under "gay people" versus "straight people" or "good" versus "bad." If people completed the task more quickly when "straight people" and "good" or "gay people" and "bad" were on the same side of the screen, their performance was considered a marker of implicit bias toward straight people.

Joerg Koch/Getty Images News/Getty Images

So, how did people do? When answering explicit questions about their preference for straight or gay people, their favor toward straight people dropped by 26 percent between the first and last days of the study, a result that the authors note mirrors public opinion polls. However, when attitudes were tested implicitly, the decrease was a mere 13.4 percent — meaning that people's feelings about the LGBT community have not evolved as much as they say. Predictably, older and more conservative participants showed a smaller shift in implicit bias; more surprisingly, male, Asian, and Black demographics also changed less throughout the course of the study.

These results may sound discouraging, but they may just be an indication that Americans' acceptance of LGBTQ people is a work in progress. Significant changes took place in LGBTQ media representations and legal rights during the years of the study, and individual attitudes may simply require some lag time to catch up with evolving societal norms. Westgate told New York Magazine that there may also be lag time between the elimination of beliefs and gut feelings:

Imagine someone reading about, say, some horrible workers' treatment at some company that they really like. ... They explicitly decide, "Okay, I don't like this company anymore, I don't want to support it," but their gut feelings, they trail that. It may take some time for that to actually be internalized to a certain extent.

Personally, I wonder if the association of "gay" with "bad" may stem from our recognition that our society by and large still considers "gay" bad, rather than being based on our own individual opinions. This could explain why even those who support gay rights demonstrated a bias toward straight people on the test.

Joerg Koch/Getty Images News/Getty Images

No matter what the results mean, though, what ultimately affects other people is how we treat them, not what mental associations we have with them. It is possible to acknowledge that negative stereotypes have been engrained in us and also work to counteract these implicit biases in our actions. This study, however, is an important reminder that such work is needed, no matter how liberal or open-minded we think we are.

Images: Marco Fieber/Flickr