Researchers at McGill University have found that the legalization of gay marriage across the United States has significantly impacted the evolving attitudes of Americans toward homosexuality. The study revealed that the state legislation has reduced anti-gay bias in many parts of the country.
Study senior author Eric Hehman is a professor in the Department of Psychology. He explained that the findings provide evidence that public policy can shape social norms and alter attitudes.
Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, followed by 34 other states and Washington, D.C. Ultimately, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could marry nationwide. Since this ruling, poll results have shown that support for same-sex marriage has steadily increased.
Professor Hehman is an expert in how individuals perceive one another and how stereotypes and biases influence our behavior. He set out to investigate whether state legislation had an impact on anti-gay bias.
“The idea that norms shape attitudes has been around in social psychology for many years,” said Professor Hehman. “We wanted to measure if laws and policies can also act as norms and potentially change deeply rooted biases.”
The team was able to map trends in anti-gay bias over the course of the 11 years that different states were adopting same-sex marriage. The researchers examined changing regional anti-gay biases of about one million respondents on a website known as Project Implicit. Next, they compared the trends from before and after gay marriage was legalized in each state.
Bias against the gay community was found to be slightly decreasing prior to same-sex marriage legalization. After same-sex marriage was accepted, however, the rate of anti-gay bias was found to decline at roughly double the previous rate.
Professor Hehman also discovered a “backlash effect” in the 15 states that did not pass same-sex marriage legalization locally. Across these states, anti-gay bias increased immediately after the Supreme Court ruling.
The outcome of the research suggests that attitudes and legislation may be mutually reinforcing, and evolving attitudes toward same-sex marriage may have provided the momentum for both state and federal legalization.
“In other words, representative governments can contribute to and/or intensify change in the attitude of citizens by passing legislation,” said Professor Hehman. “We have some evidence that the laws caused this change in bias, but it is possible the effect goes in both directions.”
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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