Can a Law Change an Attitude?

A new study finds that same-sex marriage legalization reduces antigay bias.

Posted May 16, 2019

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We all know attitudes and public opinion can change laws. But can the effect go the other way? In other words, can laws change attitudes just as attitudes can change laws?

This was the focus of new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, researchers at McGill University and the University of Utah examined U.S. citizens' attitudes towards homosexuality before and after gay marriage legalization. What they found is fascinating. It turns out that, on average, antigay bias diminished at double the rate after same-sex marriage legislation came into effect than before.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers used two sources of data. First, they examined the attitudes of approximately one million Americans using the "Project Implicit" database. Project Implicit is an online data source that tracks attitudes on various social issues such as homosexuality. To test the hypothesis that gay marriage legalization would further reduce antigay bias, they gathered people's attitudes towards homosexuality before and after certain states legalized gay marriage. They found that, while prejudice towards homosexuality has steadily decreased over time, the pace of decrease accelerated every time a state legalized gay marriage.

Second, to bolster their argument, they performed a similar analysis using data from the National Election Studies (NES). In many ways, the NES is a better source of data than Project Implicit because it is a nationally representative sample. Again, they found that attitudes towards homosexuality became even more favorable after gay marriage had been legalized.  

What might be the key ingredient for the rapid post-legalization change in attitudes? Well, as the saying goes "all politics are local," it may also be the case that all attitudes are local. Examining data in states where gay marriage had been legalized, they find consistent evidence for an accelerating pace of pro-homosexual attitudes post-legalization. However, when the researchers searched for a nationwide acceleration of pro-homosexual attitudes after federal legalization of gay marriage in 2015, they found supporting evidence only in states that had passed legalization locally. In states that did not pass legalization locally, they actually note a "backlash" effect; that is, anti-gay bias increased after federal legalization.

Putting this all together, the researchers suggest that attitudes and laws might be best viewed less as cause and effect and more as a reinforcing system. They write, "Results indicate that attitudes and legislation may be mutually reinforcing. More specifically, because results generally indicate that attitudes toward the gay community were improving in all states before legalization, evolving attitudes toward same-sex marriage may have served as impetus and momentum for both state and federal legalization. These enacted legislations in turn strengthened and consolidated favorable attitudes toward lesbians and gay men."

Of course, there's still the issue of anti-gay attitude entrenchment in states where local legislation has yet to change. To those, some might quote F. Scott Fitzgerald. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

References

Ofosu, E. K., Chambers, M. K., Chen, J. M., & Hehman, E. (2019). Same-sex marriage legalization associated with reduced implicit and explicit antigay bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(18), 8846-8851.

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