Less than 15 years ago, it was impossible for a same-sex couple to get married, and the public was strongly opposed to the idea. But in a remarkably short period of time, public opinion shifted, as did public policy—first in Massachusetts in 2004, and in an increasing number of states over time, until the US Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision in 2015 which legalized same-sex marriage across the country.
This just isn’t normal. As Nate Silver has noted, change doesn’t usually come this fast. Public opinion is sticky and people tend to reject information that they disagree with rather than updating their opinions.
There’s not just one explanation. Some of the shift is attributable to cohort replacement (older folks in the population being replaced by younger, more progressive folks), and some to increased exposure to gay and lesbian people in media and in our personal lives. More than one notable public figure has announced a change of heart on the issue of same-sex marriage after finding out that their beloved son or daughter was gay.
But there’s more going on. It’s not just people finding out that they know and love someone who is a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. It’s people finding out that those with whom they share another in-group identity are supporters of LGBT rights.
For example, when President Barack Obama shifted his public position on same-sex marriage in 2012, there were overnight increases in Black public support for the issue—the public was taking a cue from a respected leader of their in-group.
We conducted a series of 14 randomized experiments from 2011 to 2014 to test the power of in-group priming to change attitudes toward LGBT rights. We found that just a simple surprising in-group message was often enough to generate substantial shifts in public opinion.
For example, we exposed folks in Appleton, Wisconsin to a supportive statement either from Green Bay Packers Hall-of-Famer LeRoy Butler, or to entertainer Jay-Z. For non-Packers fans, it didn’t matter which statement they read because no in-group identity was primed. For Packers fans, however, exposure to the Butler statement generated a large boost in support for same-sex marriage.
We primed sports fan identities, Black and Latino ethnoracial identities, religious identities, and partisan identities. Most of the time, the experiment worked. African Americans were influenced by hearing that the Black president of the United States is a supporter. Religious individuals were influenced by hearing that a religious leader is a supporter. And strong partisans were influenced by hearing that a leader of their party is a supporter.
Our experiments were conducted all over the United States, from San Francisco to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from Hackensack, New Jersey to Edinburg, Texas. Many were conducted in partnership with LGBT advocacy organizations. We also varied the mode of the experiment, including face-to-face experiments like the Packers experiment, randomized telephone survey experiments, and online experiments.
Yes, your parents taught you to not talk about politics (or religion) in polite company. We respectfully disagree. Speaking out can change minds and can help ensure that everyone can enjoy equal rights. In this political climate, we can’t afford to worry about politeness.
It’s more important than ever to reach out to people and engage them in respectful dialogue about important social and political issues. It can be easy as saying, “Listen, we need to talk.”
Featured image credit: City Hall by Tom Hilton. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.