By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
What a difference a little bit of time can make. In 1996, same-sex marriage was more likely to be the punchline of a joke than a serious policy position, and support hovered at just 26 percent of the American public. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell this past June, however, that proportion had increased to a solid 60 percent. Jeremiah Garretson, an assistant professor of political science at Stony Brook University, finds this pretty noteworthy, and is writing a book on rapid attitude change. “There’s been this 40 to 50 point shift in public opinion,” he says. “That’s just not something you usually see.” Even more impressive, it seems to be a true cultural attitude shift. Based on a new study (Westgate, Riskind, & Nosek, 2015) this broad attitudinal transition is reflected in decreases in both conscious and unconscious bias against lesbian women and gay men, and that decrease appears to be occurring across all demographic groups.
By any standard, the study’s results are impressive. With fully 500,000 participating in an online study, the researchers measured expressed attitudes, but also measured unconscious bias. Employing Harvard University’s widely-used Implicit Association Test (IAT), the approach examines the small differences in reaction time when subjects try to pair various social identities (“gay,” “black,” “old,” etc.) with positive or negative words. An implicit bias is revealed when research subjects have a tougher time pairing what they see as a negative identity with a positive word. It may sound like an odd approach, but there is robust evidence showing that it works. Based on that methodology, the recent study found that implicit bias against gays and lesbians was 13 percent lower in 2012 than it was as recently as 2006. That is surprising because implicit biases are viewed as incredibly resilient and very slow to change. So the shift appears to be real and not just a matter of the declining social acceptability of prejudice. "People today are genuinely more positive toward gay and lesbian people than they were just a decade ago," first author Erin C. Westgate said. "The research shows that attitudes across the board 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." The research carries both specific lessons for litigators wondering if jurors will be biased against lesbian or gay witnesses or parties, as well as broader lessons for litigators who want to understand the process of attitude change. This post touches on both.