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Fear Thyself?

How authoritarian parenting promotes homophobia and hinders self-knowledge.

"I hate you because you remind me of who I secretly think I am." Sound familiar? Freud was the first to point out that we discriminate most against those who embody qualities we seek to suppress in ourselves—a defense mechanism called reaction formation. Now, a recent study by clinical psychologists Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan confirms that the more homophobic you are, the more likely you are to be at odds with (read: likely repressing) your own sexual preferences. And that's not all. Weinstein and Ryan also found that if you've been raised by authoritarian parents, you're far more likely to claim you prefer one thing while truly being turned on by another.

The researchers had participants click the left or right button of a computer keyboard to categorize various images and words as either "gay" or "straight." Before the images or words appeared on the screen the participants were staring at, they were "primed" with either the word "me" or "others." The prime was flashed for an imperceptible 35 milliseconds, meaning no one could consciously appraise having seen it. 

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If participants were quicker to click the appropriate button when responding to images of gay people or words associated with homosexuality, they received a higher score in implicit gay orientation. What the researchers were interested in was how priming participants with "me" or "others" would influence the speed with which participants correctly categorized homosexual versus heterosexual concepts. Those who were faster at categorizing gay stimuli after being primed with "me" were thought to be more implicitly inclined towards members of the same sex than those who were faster at categorizing the heterosexual stimuli.

Self-identified homosexuals tended to respond quicker to the gay stimuli when they were primed with "me." They also opted to "view more images like this" when looking at male versus female photos. Not surprising. But guess who was a runner up for quickest response to gay material when primed with "me?" Individuals who identified as homophobic. In fact, the more a participant claimed he disliked homosexuals, the higher he tended to score on implicit measures of same-sex orientation.

Of course, Weinstein and Ryan aren't the first to find such discrepancies between how an individual identifies and how they actually feel. A seminal 1996 study by Henry Adams and colleagues at the University of Georgia showed that, when hooked up to a plethysmograph (a handy little device that measures the intensity of a man's erection), homophobic men tended to become far more aroused by watching gay male porn than heterosexual men who expressed little or no aversion to homosexuals.

What's unique about Weinstein and Ryan's study was the correlation they found between the environments in which their participants were raised and the degree to which these participants' implicit sexual orientations contradicted their explicit sexual orientations. Those who were raised in an authoritarian household—where their autonomy and independent sense of self was not supported—were at much greater odds with their sexuality than those who were raised in a more democratic one.

If dad conveyed support for his child's self-expression, allowed him to frequently voice his own opinion, and gave him a say in what happened in the household, the child experienced far less discrepancy between his implicit and explicit sexual orientation later in life—even if dad held negative attitudes towards gay people himself. Such support of autonomy during childhood seemed to have provided Weinstein and Ryan's participants with a clearer boundary between what their own attitudes and judgments were and what those of their parents were. (Three cheers for giving kids the breathing room and support to get to know themselves.) 

So what can we take away from Weinstein and Ryan's findings? For one, if you find yourself tempted to lash out against a certain individual or group, you may want to take a look in the mirror (or schedule a few insight-oriented psychotherapy sessions).

But there's also a lesson here about allowing other people to be themselves—especially if they're your kids. Attempting to prevent someone from feeling a certain way won't change what that person inherently (read: implicitly) feels. Rather, it may only serve to disconnect him from his own emotions, inclincations, and preferences, as well as promote the self-hatred and denial that fuels discrimination and prejudice. Put simply: To know thyself is hard enough. Why make it any more difficult for someone to make sense of, accept, and tolerate his (or her) own inclinations?

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References:

Adams, H.E.; Wright, L.W.; Lohr, B.A. (1996). Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105(3), 440-445.

Weinstein, N.; Ryan, W. S.; DeHaan, C. R.; Przybylski, A. K.; Legate, N.; & Ryan, R. M. (in press). Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), 815-832.

Katherine Schreiber is a former Staff Editor at Psychology Today.

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