A series of studies recently published in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found higher levels of homophobia in individuals with unacknowledged attractions to the same sex, particularly when they grew up with authoritarian parents who also held homophobic attitudes. In the university press release, Netta Weinstein, the study's lead author said, "Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves." In the same release, study co-author Richard Ryan added, "In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward."
Attitudes towards gay and lesbian people are an important part of current political issues like the legality of same-sex marriage and employment nondiscrimination. Yet little scientific research has been done on what drives such anti-gay attitudes.
According to the team of researchers, this study is the first to document the role that both parenting and sexual orientation play in the formation of anti-gay attitudes, including self-reported homophobic attitudes, discriminatory bias, implicit hostility towards gays, and endorsement of anti-gay policies. One prior study used genital measures of sexual attractions and found that homophobic men showed an increase in penile erections to male homosexual male erotica.
What was the study design?
As of typical of papers in this journal, the article includes multiple separate experiments. The experiments were conducted in the United States and Germany, with each study involving an average of 160 college students.
The study focused on measuring participants explicit and implicit sexual attractions. Explicit attractions are those we are consciously aware of and can provide in a questionnaire. Implicit attractions are those that are more subconscious and may not be detected in a questionnaire and instead are measured using psychological tasks. To explore participants' explicit and implicit sexual attraction, the researchers measured the differences between what people say about their sexual orientation and how they react during a split-second timed task. Students were shown words and pictures on a computer screen and asked to put these in "gay" or "straight" categories. Before each of the 50 trials, participants were subliminally primed with either the word "me" or "others" flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds, which is too quick to even be consciously perceptible to the participants. They were then shown the words "gay," "straight," "homosexual," and "heterosexual" as well as pictures of straight and gay couples, and the computer tracked precisely their response times. A faster association of "me" with "gay" and a slower association of "me" with "straight" was taken to indicated an implicit gay orientation.
Finally, the researcher measured participants' level of homophobia—both overt, as expressed in questionnaires on social policy and beliefs, and implicit, as revealed in word-completion tasks. For the implicit measure, students wrote down the first three words that came to mind, for example for the prompt "k i _ _". The study tracked the increase in the amount of aggressive words elicited after showing participants the word "gay" for 35 milliseconds.
In these experiments, participants who reported themselves to be more heterosexual than their performance on the reaction time task indicated were most likely to react with hostility towards gay people. In other words, if a participant identified as heterosexual, but showed a reaction pattern consistent with homosexuality, they were more likely to express homophobic attitudes. This incongruence between implicit and explicit measures of sexual orientation predicted a variety of homophobic behaviors, including self-reported anti-gay attitudes, implicit hostility towards gays, endorsement of anti-gay policies, and discriminatory bias such as the assignment of harsher punishments for homosexuals.
As with all studies, this one had several limitations. As the authors pointed out, all participants were college students, so it may be helpful in future research to test these effects in younger adolescents still living at home and in older adults who have had more time to establish lives independent of their parents and to look at attitudes as they change over time. Additionally, given the correlational nature of many of the present findings, causal and developmental inferences cannot be reliably made. Finally, it is important to point out that implicit measures are not a perfect window into an individual’s psyche or “true” sexual orientation.
Despite these limitations, this series of studies helps us understand the roots of homophobia, specifically that in some cases it may represent repressed same-sex attractions.
Below is a video produced by the authors describing the findings:
Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook. I periodically live tweet from research conferences on sexuality and you can follow me @sexualcontinuum