Study: In-person conversations can dramatically reduce transphobia (for serious)

Remember the time last year when the academic journal, Science, retracted a study by UCLA Ph.D. candidate Michael LaCour purporting to show that in-person canvassing could increase support for marriage equality over concerns that the study’s data had likely been faked? As had data in other studies published by the same author?

Well, the authors who originally raised questions about the canvassing study have conducted research of their own (with publicly-available data, this time) and found that LaCour’s study, while discredited, was at least false in the right direction.

Published again in Science, researchers David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that in-person canvassing was able to dramatically reduce transphobia through conversations that encouraged “actively taking the perspective of others.” Furthermore, the authors found that the attitude change was sticky: When voters were re-contacted three months after they had been canvassed, transphobia remained diminished.

To the extent that the authors’ findings deviated from LaCour’s conclusions, they were even more encouraging. While the discredited study had found that attitude change toward marriage equality was only likely if the canvasser was gay or lesbian, Broockman and Kalla found that both cis and trans canvassers were able to significantly reduce transphobia:

Effects of canvassing on transgender tolerance over time, via Broockman and Kalla (2016) / Science

Effects of canvassing on transgender tolerance over time, via Broockman and Kalla (2016) / Science

The key, the authors found, wasn’t the messenger so much as it was the messenger’s ability to induce “active, effortful processing” among the voters being canvassed. In other words, canvassers were able to reduce transphobia by encouraging voters to articulate the perspective of an out-group for themselves. As the authors explain their methodology:

Working America Field Manager Dave Ninehouser at a Working America member's door. (Photo by Molly Theobald for the aflcio2008)

Canvassing (Photo by Molly Theobald for the AFL-CIO)

Canvassers informed voters that they might face a decision about the issue (whether to vote to repeal the law protecting transgender people); canvassers asked voters to explain their views; and canvassers showed a video that presented arguments on both sides. Canvassers also defined the term “transgender” at this point and, if they were transgender themselves, noted this. The canvassers next attempted to encourage “analogic perspectivetaking.” Canvassers first asked each voter to talk about a time when they themselves were judged negatively for being different. The canvassers then encouraged voters to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences, hoping to facilitate voters’ ability to take transgender people’s perspectives. The intervention ended with another attempt to encourage active processing by asking voters to describe if and how the exercise changed their mind.

The results were striking. In-person conversations were able to raise voters’ positive affect (measured on a “feelings thermometer”) by roughly ten percentage points. For perspective, the authors note that this level of attitude change, measured after one conversation and confirmed to have persisted for at least three months, is greater than the American public’s overall change in positive affect toward gays and lesbians between 1998 and 2012.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors also found that the attitude changes produced via in-person canvassing withstood anti-trans attacks later on:

Support for anti-discrimination law over time, via Broockman and Kalla (2016) / Science

Support for anti-discrimination law over time, via Broockman and Kalla (2016) / Science

As the above chart shows, six weeks after the initial contact, the authors re-surveyed participants and showed them one of three anti-trans attack ads from recent campaigns against non-discrimination laws. While the ads did have an immediate and negative effect, as one might expect, the effect was not enough to fully overcome the initial pro-inclusion attitude shift. Additionally, the ads’ effects faded, with support for the non-discrimination law in question returning to pre-attack ad (and post-canvassing) levels over time, suggesting that the canvassing’s effects were stronger.

To be clear, it’s entirely possible that these results are the product of context. Transgender issues have only recently become salient for much of the American public, which means that attitudes toward trans inclusion are less likely to be as deeply ingrained as attitudes toward, say, abortion. Either way, though, this study is welcome confirmation for those who are active in LGBT politics that in-person voter contact — showing up at people’s doors and talking to them about their feelings toward sexual minorities — is an effective way to push back against hate campaigns and increase support for LGBT rights.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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3 Responses to “Study: In-person conversations can dramatically reduce transphobia (for serious)”

  1. Skye Winspur says:

    Ignorant parents, unfortunately, yes. I find the study encouraging because it suggests that the children of these parents can be “taught out” of their prejudice.

  2. Stephaniecspeier says:

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  3. The_Fixer says:

    Gee, who knew that teaching empathy to people would make them better see that there’s really not that much difference between most people?

    Of course, the better question may be “Why haven’t people learned it before?” It may have something to do with how prejudice is handed down to younger generations, and child-rearing in general.

    I was introduced to Alice Miller’s critiques of modern child rearing by reading Arthur Silber’s Blog Once Upon a Time. Very interesting stuff. Raising children is a very interesting proposition – there is no license required and anybody can do it. Of course, we have laws against the obvious mistreatment of children, but do we have any truly decent guidelines regarding the not-so-obvious damage we do to children – such as this case, not-so-obvious damage we do when we teach children prejudice and bias?

    And furthermore, how come so many are taught these things? Do we have that many bad parents out there, or just plain ignorant ones?

    Lots of discussion can be had about this, but it’s off to work for me.

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