Our president has brought us many first – events that have nudged the collective social psychological typography of our nation. President Obama’s race, grassroots campaign, and prolific use of social media have shaped subtle changes in how we interact with the political system and each other.
Last week brought another first. Speaking in support of same-sex marriage, Obama acknowledged and gave his voice to a divisive social issue. Simultaneously, for the first time in our country’s history, despite North Carolina’s marriage amendment, the number of people favoring same-sex marriage has outnumbered those who oppose it. As a moral psychology researcher, I ask, “Why?” “What has changed to pave the way for these shifts?” Maybe more importantly, “Why is it that we are still so divided on this issue?”
While work on out-group prejudice is pertinent here, another interesting and related line of research examines our basic responses to homosexuality. I want to preface my summaries of these studies by noting that most of their participants are heterosexual. We have to keep this in mind when making any inferences to the population at large. Secondly, many researchers use terms such as “taboo” and “unusual” to refer to homosexual acts. It is difficult for these words not to hurt, but they are meant to be value-free and purely descriptive terms. They refer not to the researcher’s opinion, but to society’s unfortunate views and to the (perhaps underestimated) relative frequency of homosexual acts in our culture.
Research shows that our emotional reactions to acts that break society’s moral codes are strong – we feel anger at injustice, contempt for those that break norms of rank, and disgust towards acts seem impure or sexually deviant (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999). Disgust has also been historically associated with members of outgroups and may have served as a way for us to maintain distance from those whose trustworthiness isn’t clear – those that belong to a different group. This reaction, then, is often an outdated vestige from a time when we didn’t travel far from small groups of people who looked and thought like us.
Homosexual acts and individuals who identify as homosexual have often been the targets of disgust. Those individuals who are more prone to experience disgust (including basic core-disgust towards dirty and unsavory items such as feces and spoiled food) tend to be less accepting of same-sex marriage and have more negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Even people who don’t outwardly endorse a negative view of homosexuality, associate homosexual acts with disgust at an implicit level (Inbar, Pizarro, Knobe, & Bloom, 2009). Political conservatives, compared to liberals tend to feel more disgust in general and this tendency explains much about their attitudes towards same-sex marriage (Inbar, Pizarro, & Bloom, 2009).
If disgust towards unfamiliar others and unusual sexual acts is an evolved strategy, why do more than half of Americans support same-sex marriage?
One component may be our shift in values. While some individuals may still feel uneasy towards homosexual acts, we are able to reappraise or dampen this emotional response. We can take a step back and realize that our initial reactions to situations are not informative or reflective of our values. I propose this reappraisal hypothesis with colleagues in a forthcoming paper.
Another interesting question is why our values are shifting. Here, I want to step out of my research slippers and propose one mechanism. Disgust towards homosexuality wanes with increased exposure of physical acts between same-sex partners, whether through media, brave friends who have come out about their sexual orientation, or strangers on the street. I live in San Francisco, where I often find myself walking behind a lesbian couple holding hands or see two men share an affectionate peck in a restaurant. My daughter will grow up with this as the norm. She will have a more representative view of people’s sexuality. Perhaps her generation will have no explicit or implicit negative association with homosexuality. In other words, with this shift, not only will people be better able to reappraise their discomfort, they may stop feeling it entirely.
These social shifts are truly thrilling to watch and I hope you are now somewhat better armed to understand your own and others’ opinions these social issues.
Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76 (4), 574-586 DOI:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1994
Inbar Y, Pizarro DA, Knobe J, & Bloom P (2009). Disgust sensitivity predicts intuitive disapproval of gays. Emotion, 9 (3), 435-9 PMID:19485621
Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., & Bloom, P. (2009). Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals Cognition & Emotion, 23 (4), 714-725 DOI:10.1080/02699930802110007