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Gender attitude changers

March 20, 2017

On March 1, Professor Chris Mann from the Political Science Department welcomed Brian Harrison from Northwestern University and Melissa Michelson from Menlo College to speak about their new book, Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights. Mann had been following their research and said he was happy to see it published in book form—in fact, it was ranked as Amazon's number-one book on civil rights.

LGBT students
Among the audience were students from Skidmore's
Pride Alliance club.

The book discusses findings from the duo's 14 experiments on how "identity priming" affects attitude change. They rooted their research in the theory of "dissonant identity priming" formulated by Henri Tajfel in 1970. Tajfel's experiments concentrated on how people are categorized by their various identities, from gender, race, and ethnicity to religious, spiritual, or political orientation. These identities hold firm over time and have a substantial impact on how people see themselves in relation to and association with others. People feel bound together by shared identities and are more likely to favor their fellow group members over others.

Given that humans feel motivated to maintain their social identity over their many changing and malleable attitudes, Harrison described how people are more likely to process information if the person giving it to them initially fosters a personal connection based on a shared identity. In-group belonging reduces social distance and increases both trust and issue salience, as well as the potential for attitude change.     

Michelson cited President Barack Obama as a notable illustration of this: In 2012, Obama did not initially support marriage equality but then changed his view. Instead of, as feared, losing the large number of black voters who were against gay marriage at the time, Obama found that black public opinion shifted to support gay marriage in line with his changed views. Both Harrison and Michelson found this phenomenon repeated in their own research on sports fans who learn of the views of their sports heroes. Essentially, most people value their identity over their opinions, finding it easier and less dissonant to change their view on an issue rather than to feel disjointed from their in-group identity.

Throughout their talk, Harrison and Michelson encouraged increased conversations with people of different identities and views to gain awareness of the opinions of others. They explained that shifts in public opinion can generate and foster shifts in public policies, and they argued that the often-heard, elite voices require more diversity and debate.

One audience member asked about the staying power of attitude shifts. Michelson suggested that since identities are stronger than attitudes, it would be harder to change one's attitude after it's been realigned with the views of a salient personal identity, so she sees reason to believe in the durability of such changed opinions.

While their current book focuses on marriage equality and LGBT rights, Harrison and Michelson expect to move toward transgender issues in their next research on ways to promote public attitude change. They predict that this attitude-shifting process will be unlike that of marriage equality, especially when they consider that men who strongly value their masculinity often feel very threatened by transgender people. Michelson argues that "attitudes which are a part of one's self-concept are harder to move," so that for transgender attitude shifts, "a different kind of effort will be needed." —Blair Warren '17

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