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Psychology’s four-decade fight against homophobia

Blog • • Dr. Sebastian Bartoş & Prof. Peter Hegarty

In recent decades, no psychological issue occupied the legal team of the American Psychological Association as consistently as their work in support of lesbian, gay and bisexual equal rights. Psychology, however, has not always been this supportive of LGB causes: as a profession, psychology’s values have shifted over the last half century from considering homosexuality a mental illness to recognising the adverse effect of stigma on the lives of sexual minorities. Here we tell part of that story, centring on the successes, false starts and future promises of psychology's quest to reduce homophobia.

Gay pride flags

The success of contact as a strategy for fighting homophobia

The story of how the American Psychiatric Association voted to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973 has often been told. Less often is this moment remembered as the beginning of something new: a long history of conceptualising, measuring and attempting to reduce homophobia, a term that is now firmly stuck in the public mind.

The year after depathologisation, American psychologist Stephen Morin published the first paper on a psychological intervention aiming to change homophobia. Specifically, Morin invited gay speakers to his college classroom, and thus successfully changed his students' attitudes. This finding supported Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis that “knowledge about and acquaintance with members of minority groups make for tolerant and friendly attitudes”.

Are psychologists such as Morin successful when they intervene to reduce homophobia? In 2014, we, along with Israel Berger, published a systematic review of intervention studies to answer this question. Several answers emerged. First and foremost, research has time and again supported Allport's contact hypothesis. This was hardly a surprise: hundreds of studies have been conducted on the effect of contact on multiple forms of prejudice.

Demonstration for ending homophobia

Our review found that contact reduced homophobic attitudes by about half a standard deviation on average. Educating people on sexuality had a similarly robust effect, of about the same strength as contact. Psychologists have also investigated a wider and more creative array of strategies. Some have explored effects of the mass-media representations of LGB people, others have tried to increase empathy. For example, the ‘Spaceship Exercise’ asks straight participants to imagine landing on an alien planet where all romance and sex is forbidden; the exercise thus induces empathy with LGB people’s struggles.

"Psychologists have been creative in their experiments over the last 40 years, and most evidence shows that education and contact with gay people are effective strategies"
- Sebastian Bartoş

The biological argument may have little effect on homophobic attitudes

Not all attempts to reduce homophobia that seemed promising have proven effective when subjected to experimental test. From the early 1990s onward, several psychologists investigated whether presenting the argument that homosexuality was inborn, genetic or unchosen would have a direct effect on attitudes.

Whilst many social scientists continue to believe in this intervention, a review of the experiments conducted to test its effectiveness suggests that the strategy has little if any effect. Some experiments yielded null results, some yielded complex interactions, and several showed that people’s prior beliefs and attitudes affect the way that they make sense of arguments from biology. Consistent with this interpretation, the effect of educational interventions on homophobia in our larger review was very similar across programs; the specific content of a broadly pro-gay curriculum – and whether that curriculum includes biology or not – may be of less importance than presenting such a program in the first place.

Researching moral elevation as a tool to combat disgust-based homophobia

Our British Academy project Heroes against Homophobia builds on these reviews to tackle one of the most trenchant barriers to reducing homophobia: disgust. Prejudice against gay men, in particular, is often fuelled by disgust. To understand the weight of that, just think of your own friends. If you are angry with them, that can be overcome; but if you are disgusted at someone, that relationship is likely beyond repair.

One way to change an emotion is to induce its opposite; we fight sadness with happiness. But what is disgust’s opposite? Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the famous moral psychologist, has given the name moral elevation to the warm feeling experienced when we witness self-sacrifice. Research has found that asking people to imagine an act of exceptional moral beauty makes them express less homophobia afterwards. We set out to see if moral elevation really is a new tool to combat disgust-based homophobia.

As part of our research on moral elevation, we conducted focus groups in which we showed our participants news stories about exceptional gay men. These ‘heroes’ included celebrities like Olympic champion Tom Daley; and everyday heroes who did morally exceptional things, like a drag queen who saved someone from a burning car. We asked participants how they felt towards these heroes. They could clearly articulate why they admired someone who won medals, but also why they admired self-sacrifice differently – consistent with Haidt’s idea of “moral elevation” as an emotion in its own right.

Tom Daley at the Olympic Victory Parade

"Tom Daley at the Olympic Victory Parade" by Kim Ratcliffe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Finally, we asked participants what the opposite of moral elevation might be. After dramatic silence, someone’s face in the focus group always lit up with the answer: disgust! Elevation and disgust do seem to be opposites, at least in people’s constructions of these emotions.

Questions for the future

However, the failures of presenting biological theories of sexual orientation cautions us that not all common-sense strategies work when subjected to rigorous tests. Moreover, the effect of moral elevation on homophobia was small far smaller than the tried and tested effects of contact and education interventions. Nor did previous research examine how people respond to gay heroes. Do people become less homophobic when they read about a gay hero rather than a straight one? Under the auspices of our project Heroes against Homophobia, funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, we are conducting the experiments that will provide the answers to these questions.


Dr Sebastian Bartoş and Professor Peter Hegarty both teach at the University of Surrey, School of Psychology.

Heroes against Homophobia is a project funded by the British Academy via a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant awarded to Peter Hegarty, Sophie Russell and Sebastian Bartos.

Image credits:
istock.com/MarcBruxelle
istock.com/john shepherd

Blog • • Dr. Sebastian Bartoş & Prof. Peter Hegarty