February 12, 2019
It’s not what you know, but who you know that gets you in the door, or that moves a social effort forward. Most of us are familiar with this “old saw”—and now, Daniel DellaPosta of Penn State University has proven it true again.
DellaPosta—an assistant professor of Sociology at Penn and an affiliate of the university’s Institute for CyberScience—has found that people who meet and become acquainted with at least one gay person are more likely to later change their minds about same-sex marriage; and become more accepting of gay and lesbian people in general,
According to DellaPosta, sociologists have long proposed that when people establish certain relationships, they may change their attitudes about issues, often referred to as the contact effect. However, prior to this study, the theory had yet to be rigorously tested.
“What I thought we needed in this area was a test of the contact hypothesis that was conservative — perhaps overly conservative—using the most stringent test we could possibly devise,” said DellaPosta.
DellaPosta examined data from the 2006, 2008, and 2010 editions of General Social Survey (GSS), a sociological survey of opinions that Americans hold on a range of issues.
In 2006, about 45% of the people who had a gay or lesbian acquaintance expressed support for same-sex marriage. By 2010, that figure had increased to 61%. In 2006, only 22% of people who did not have a gay or lesbian acquaintance said they approved of same-sex marriage. That number fell to 18% in 2010.
DellaPosta said that the survey data does not reveal exactly when these relationships were established, which makes the test more rigorous.
“By taking people in that 2006 baseline who were acquainted with gay and lesbian people and comparing them with other people who were similar in all visible regards, including their measured attitude toward same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian people at that 2006 baseline, who were not acquainted with gay and lesbian people, you can get a really conservative test of the contact hypothesis,” said DellaPosta, who reported his findings in a recent issue of the journal Socius.
The findings could shed light on how “coming out” among gay and lesbian people impacts the general acceptance of gay and lesbian people. In the 1973 GSS, just 11% of Americans believed that “homosexuality is not wrong at all.” By 2016, that number had grown to 52%.
Further, DellaPosta suggested that the contact with a gay person does not even need to be especially deep for the contact effect to appear.
“If you have very superficial contact, like just seeing someone from an out group in the grocery store or on the subway, you may focus more on selective behaviors that reinforce your prejudices—like someone dressing, talking or acting in a way that reinforces some negative stereotype of that group,” said DellaPosta.
“But, if you take the next level to mere acquaintanceship—someone whose name you know, someone who, if you saw them on the street, you might stop and chat with them for a moment—the contact effect sets in because when you suddenly have to interact with someone from an out group as an individual, it forces you to reconsider your biases.”
According to DellaPosta, having a closer, deeper bond with a gay or lesbian acquaintance did not result in an even larger shift of attitude toward same-sex marriage. He added that the contact effect actually is larger for people who have a low probability of having a gay or lesbian acquaintance.
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