National Differences in Attitudes toward Gays and Lesbians

Differences in empathy may explain why some nations don't accept homosexuals.

Posted Dec 27, 2016

In the current issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, researchers Candice Donaldson, Lindsay Handren, and Andrew Lac report the results of a study designed to measure acceptance of gays and lesbians in Europe. They used data from the 2012 European Social Survey, which included responses from roughly 37,000 individuals in 28 European countries.

From the Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama
Source: From the Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama

The survey participants, who ranged in age from 15 to 103, used a 5-point scale to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the statement, “Gays and Lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish.”

Overall, people in Iceland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Belgium were most accepting of homosexuals. People in Kosovo, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, and Albania were most disapproving of homosexuals.

Donaldson and her colleagues found that the best predictor of attitudes toward homosexuals was a nation’s degree of social conservatism. European countries that are more religious and endorse traditional family roles are less likely to approve of homosexuals.

Social conservatism was the best predictor among the variables measured in the study, but it wasn’t a strong correlate in an absolute sense. Might there be some other national characteristic that’s more strongly associated with attitudes toward homosexuals?

One possible answer appears, coincidentally, in another study published in the very same issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Psychologists William Chopik, Ed O’Brien, and Sara Konrath created an Internet site that allowed volunteers around the world to take a test that measured their personal empathy. More than 103,000 persons in 63 nations completed the empathy questionnaire.

Participants answered 14 questions designed to measure empathic concern and perspective taking. One item, for example, asked participants to indicate their agreement with the statement “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.” Another item asked participants to indicate their agreement with the statement “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.”

The countries with the highest empathy scores were Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates. The countries with the lowest scores were Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria.

The observant reader will have noticed that the highest-ranked European country for empathy—Denmark—also ranks very high on acceptance of gays and lesbians. The lowest-ranked European country for empathy—Lithuania—ranks very low on acceptance of gays and lesbians.

To satisfy my curiosity about a possible relationship between national empathy and acceptance of homosexuals, I examined the relative standings of European countries in the two separate studies. Estonia had the third lowest score for empathy and also scored low for acceptance of gays. The same was true of Poland and Bulgaria.

Germany, like its neighbor Denmark, scored high for empathy and high for acceptance of gays. Italy scored moderately high for empathy and moderately high for acceptance of gays.

The pattern didn't hold in every case. Iceland was the top-ranked European nation for acceptance of gays, but its empathy score was below average among the community of nations. Finland scored below average on empathy but above average on acceptance of gays.

Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that empathic persons (and nations) generally have more favorable attitudes towards gays and lesbians. They also have more favorable attitudes toward refugees and other immigrants. When you put yourself into the shoes of marginalized individuals and feel what they feel, it’s difficult to convince yourself that “those people” don’t deserve to be treated as well as everyone else.


Chopik, W. J., O’Brien, E., & Konrath, S. H. (2017). Differences in empathic concern and perspective taking across 63 countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(1), 23-38.

Donaldson, C. D., Handren, L. M., & Lac, A. (2017). Applying multilevel modeling to understand individual and cross-cultural variations in attitudes toward homosexual people across 28 European countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(1), 93-112.