Why asking Russians to be empathetic leads to increased anti-gay prejudice By Marco Fieber via Flickr

Why asking Russians to be empathetic leads to increased anti-gay prejudice

In response to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, politicians have urged the Russian authorities to show empathy and take the perspective of same-sex couples. I argue that this can be counterproductive: Perspective taking can foster anti-gay prejudice.

Olympic games and anti-gay prejudice

Right before the 2014 Olympics, the Russian government passed a law that banned ‘gay propaganda’. That is, they made it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships and to demonstrate on behalf of gay rights, constraining the civil rights of members of Russia’s LGBT community. In response, European politicians and American intellectuals urged the Russian people and authorities to show empathy and take the perspective of same-sex couples. This would surely increase understanding and decrease prejudice and discrimination, right?

Perspective taking as the gasoline of prejudice

Research conducted by my colleague Chadly Stern (New York University) and myself, indicates that this assumption is false – at least under some circumstances. Rather, taking the perspective of a gay person can actually increase anti-gay prejudice. In order to see why, we need to understand that perspective taking entails placing yourself in someone else’s shoes and so imagine their behaviors. In other words, you switch your perspective from your “self” to the “other” and imagine what you assume to be the experience of that particular person. So, what would happen when you associate gay people with the sexual acts that they engage in, and take their perspective? Would you then mentally simulate same-sex sexual behavior when taking the perspective of a gay person? And would imagining such same-sex sexual behavior then increase anti-gay prejudice because you find the imagined behaviors aversive?

Experimental Evidence From Social Psychological Studies

In three as yet unpublished studies, we presented a total of 750 American participants with a picture of a same-sex couple and asked half of them to “Try to imagine what life would be like if you were one of the men shown in the image”, whereas the other half of the participants were asked to “Try to remain as objective and detached as possible while looking at the picture.” We then asked them to evaluate the same-sex couple (e.g., how immoral are they?), to indicate their general attitudes about homosexuality (e.g., is homosexuality a perversion?) and probed their attitudes towards gay rights (e.g., should same-sex couples be allowed to adopt children?). Lastly, we measured their political ideology/orientation and we also probed the extent to which they imagined same-sex sexual behavior when taking the perspective of the gay couple.

We found that political conservatives who took the perspective of the gay couple and imagined their same-sex sexual behaviors became more negative towards the same-sex couple and homosexuality in general, and less supportive of equal rights for gay couples. Thus, when political conservatives, but not political liberals (note that in Europe, liberals are referred to as "political progressives"), associate homosexuality with gay-sex and are urged to take that perspective, they become more instead of less prejudiced.

These findings make sense when we consider the psychological profiles of liberals and conservatives: Conservatives have been shown to react much more defensively to aversive stimuli (such as threats to the political system or behavior that arouses disgust) than liberals and their responses to imagining same-sex sexual behavior is therefore a defensive one: They disparage same-sex couples and all that is associated with them.

The implications

What does this tell us about the Russian anti-gay law and homophobia in general? Our findings indicate that urging for perspective taking as a way to decrease anti-gay prejudice is not always the way to go: Russia’s political elite is most likely more conservative than liberal, and trying to stimulate their empathic sentiments may therefore backfire into more anti-gay prejudice. Indeed, given the prevalence of associating gay people with the sexual acts that they engage in (see for example Stephen Fry’s documentary “Out There”), Western politicians and intellectuals may try to avoid appealing to empathy as the way to promote progressive change.