Harrison, Brian F. & Melissa R. Michelson. 2017. Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes Toward LGBT Rights. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Summary:

American public opinion tends to be sticky. Although the news cycle might temporarily affect the public’s mood on contentious issues like abortion, the death penalty, or gun control, public opinion toward these issues has remained remarkably constant over decades. There are notable exceptions, however, particularly with regard to divisive issues that highlight identity politics. For example, over the past three decades, public support for same-sex marriage has risen from scarcely more than a tenth to a majority of the population. Why have people’s minds changed so dramatically on this issue, and why so quickly? It wasn’t just that older, more conservative people were dying and being replaced in the population by younger, more progressive people; people were changing their minds. Was this due to the influence of elite leaders like President Obama? Or advocacy campaigns by organizations pushing for greater recognition of the equal rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people?

Listen, We Need to Talk tests a new theory, what Brian Harrison and Melissa Michelson call The Theory of Dissonant Identity Priming, about how to change people’s attitudes on controversial topics. Harrison and Michelson conducted randomized experiments all over the United States, many in partnership with equality organizations, including Equality Illinois, Georgia Equality, Lambda Legal, Equality Maryland, and Louisiana’s Capital City Alliance. They found that people are often willing to change their attitudes about LGBT rights when they find out that others with whom they share an identity (for example, as sports fans or members of a religious group) are also supporters of those rights—particularly when told about support from a leader of the group, and particularly if they find the information somewhat surprising.

Fans of the Green Bay Packers football team were influenced by hearing that a Packers Hall-of-Famer is a supporter of LGBT rights. African Americans were influenced by hearing that the Black president of the United States is a supporter. Religious individuals were influenced by hearing that a religious leader is a supporter. And strong partisans were influenced by hearing that a leader of their party is a supporter. Through a series of engaging experiments and compelling evidence, Listen, We Need to Talk provides a blueprint for thinking about how to bring disparate groups together over contentious political issues.

Social attitudes are often entrenched and resistant to change, as evidenced by the typically slow rates of attitudinal change on various social issues. For example, a 1975 Gallup Poll found that 21% of Americans believed abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while 22% believed it should be illegal in all circumstances. Almost four decades later, opinion on the issue had barely shifted: a 2012 Gallup Poll found that now 25% believed abortion should always be legal while 20% believed it should always be illegal. This attitudinal stickiness does not deter advocates on either side of those issues. Vast sums of money are spent in persuasive campaigns to try to induce Americans to change their minds. These well-funded campaigns notwithstanding, scholars are only beginning to understand the best way to have an effect on attitudes and behaviors related to hot-button political issues and these recent efforts raise a series of important questions. How and under what conditions do grassroots advocacy campaigns have an effect and when do they fail? Is it all about the message and how an argument is phrased? Or, is it the source of the message—whether or not the messenger is a trusted source?

In recent years, there has been a major shift in public opinion toward the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, with 50-60% of Americans now supporting marriage equality. Significant opposition remains, however, and national and many state laws continue to restrict marriage as legally available only to partnerships of one man and one woman. There are dozens if not hundreds of statewide and national organizations that advocate on behalf of LGBT Americans, spending resources, time, and energy toward persuading elected officials and the public on the right to marry. Despite all of this time and effort expended, little is known about how to make this subset of political advocacy as effective as possible, nor is much known about how attitudes on this issue are formed in the first place.

One purpose of book is to answer several questions, including how marriage equality organizations could change public opinion to be more supportive of same-sex marriage in both their attitudes and behavior (e.g. donating money and voting in favor of marriage equality legislation) and which methods are most effective to persuade those either undecided or opposed. This project presents results from a variety of field experiments, including persuasion efforts through door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and Internet-based videos, to illustrate a theory of the power of in-group sociocultural interaction. We find that by broadening the definition of in-groups and increasing interpersonal closeness between LGBT and non-LGBT individuals, respondents are more likely to be supportive of marriage equality.

We call this the Theory of Dissonant Identity Priming. When nudged to consider gay and lesbian advocates as “just like me” in some way—by activating an identity like race, partisanship, religious identity, or even being a sports fan—we expect individuals in our experiments will be moved to be more supportive of marriage equality in their expressed attitudes and observed behaviors. Using the gold standard of current political science, fully randomized field experiments, we will illustrate the power of this theory and inform future advocacy and persuasion efforts around this issue in the United States.

Our experiments were conducted between 2011 and 2014, in a variety of geographic locations across the country. Many were conducted with equality organizations, including Equality Illinois, Georgia Equality, Lambda Legal, Equality Maryland, and Louisiana’s Capital City Alliance. We find that people are often willing to change their attitudes about LGBT rights when they find out that others with whom they share an identity are supporters of those rights—particularly when told about support from a leader of the group, and particularly if they find the information somewhat surprising.

Fans of the Green Bay Packers football team were influenced by hearing that a Packers Hall-of-Famer is a supporter. African Americans were influenced by hearing that the Black President of the United States is a supporter. Religious individuals were influenced by hearing that a religious leader is a supporter. Strong partisans were influenced by hearing that a leader of their party is a supporter. Our experiments test a variety of identities falling into four major social groups: sports fans, religion, ethnorace, and partisanship. Overall, we find considerable support for our Theory of Dissonant Identity Priming and believe the theory applies to other contentious political issues as well.

 The book will be of interest not just to practitioners interested in promoting marriage equality but for students and researchers interested in learning more about how field experiments can be used practically to explore important political science and public policy questions. Two of our experiments have already been published (in Political Behavior in 2012 and one in Social Science Quarterly in 2015). One more was published in PS: Political Science and Politics in October 2016.

Our experiments have garnered press attention, with citations in the Washington Post, Salon.com, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, and the New York Times. You can read some additional media examples in the Media section.

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