Attitude Formation: Cultural Influences on Attitude Toward LGBT Individuals
This study seeks to better understand the reasons upon which college students base their opinions of LGBT people. The hypothesis states that college students at a midwestern university will base their attitude towards the LGBT community more on their friends’ attitude of the LGBT community than on their mother’s attitude or their father’s attitude. One hundred fifty one students from a midwestern university participated in the study. A 55-item questionnaire was compiled using questions from the Components of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality scale (Lamar & Kite, 1998). There were three independent variables (similarity to father, similarity to mother, similarity to friends) and seven dependent variables (6 sub-scores and an aggregate score). In the future, this work can serve as the starting block for research into the effects of attitude formation; it would be interesting to look for patterns in the behavior of those who form their attitudes in one way or another.
Keywords: sexual orientation, attitude, contact hypothesis
“For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction.” (King, 1967, par. 3). Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this phrase as a call-to-arms for social scientists and his words ring true today. Yet, the struggle has transitioned from one minority group to another. Society has entered another area of social justice, and psychology sits at the center of the issue. There are multiple facts that call attention to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) concerns and rights in our society:
§ 3.5% of Americans classify as LGBT (Stark, 2012)
§ 48% of Americans oppose same-sex marriage today, but 68% of Americans opposed same sex marriage in 1996 (Stark, 2012)
§ About one third of American LGBT youth have attempted to commit suicide (Robin, Brener, Donahue, Hack, Hale, & Goodenow, 2002)
§ Over 80% of LGBT students have reported that faculty and staff make no effort to stop verbal abuse and harassment in the classroom (GLSEN, 2003)
§ In 2005, more than 1 in every 10 cases of hate crimes was related to sexual minority status (Robin et al., 2002)
Although there are a number of interesting research questions relating to the LGBT community, one of the most important is the way that outside influences affect the formation of one’s attitude toward the LGBT community. This study seeks to better understand the reasons upon which college students base their opinions of LGBT people. Are their opinions predicated on the influence of parents, the influence of friends, their ethnicity, or another factor? In order to change behavior, we must first understand thoughts and the origin of thoughts. “Thoughts become feelings, feelings become attitude, and attitude becomes behavior” (J.L. Kemp, personal communication, September 24, 2012). Attitude is defined as the “positive or negative evaluations of humans, objects, or ideas, which can be reflected in an individual’s cognitions, sensibilities, and behaviors (Cao, Wang, & Gao, 2010, p. 722). In contrast, to understand attitude, we must first discover its source; only then, we can narrow down influences and become more specific. For instance, if a participant’s attitude is predicated on parents’ beliefs, the next step is to discover the basis of parental beliefs (religiosity, homophobia, their parents’ beliefs, etc.). This study aims to determine that first step and provoke future research among college students.
Background: Nature vs. Nurture
The most basic question in the discourse on homosexuality is whether or not it is “natural;” in other words, are people gay/lesbian because they were made that way, or because they choose to be that way. Past research (Sarantakos, 1998) has characterized this debate as essentialists versus social constructionists. Essentialists believe that homosexuality comes from a fundamental component of one’s identity and that it is unchangeable and fixed. Further, they posit that homosexuals ‘come out’ when they accept themselves as gay or lesbian. Finally, they support their argument by referencing the ineffectiveness of reparative therapy (designed to adjust homosexuals back to the normal state of heterosexuality). In fact, reparative therapy has increased the likelihood of clients attempting suicide (Schidlo & Schoredor, 2002).
In contrast, social constructionists posit that one’s sexual identity is not a fixed element of personality and that “what seems to be a self-discovery is better considered as self-construction” (Sarantakos, 1998, p. 23). In addition, they strongly suggest that sexuality constantly shifts and adjusts throughout life, which would support their position of sexuality as a social construct. Neither theory describes homosexuality as an illegitimate component of personality; they simply conflict on the consistency and the depth of homosexuality. A significant factor in one’s attitude towards LGBT people has been between those who see it as a natural component of personality versus those who see it as an unnatural component. This distinction strongly affects one’s perception and attitude towards homosexuals.
Generational Differences: Parents’ influence vs. Friends’ Influence
As indicated by a CBS News poll in May (Reals, 2012), there is a strongly defined generational gap when considering attitudes towards the LGBT community. On average, 38% of people stated that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but when we striate the survey by age, we see a huge shift. In people aged 18-44, 53% believed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry; in people aged 45 and over, only 24% believed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Interestingly enough, the 18-44 group had an almost identical approval of same-sex marriage as did proclaimed Democrats when considering the poll’s sampling error: 53% and 58%, respectively. This survey strongly indicates that there may be a strong difference between what participants hear at home and what they hear in other places. Therefore, it will be interesting to study the effect of parental influence on students’ attitudes towards LGBT people.
In the same manner, this study will measure the effect of friends’ influence on students’ attitudes towards LGBT persons. College students often move away from home and grow independent of their parents at this time, often spending much more time around other college students. This paper focuses on college students, because of the unique interaction between two variables: (a) their independence as critically thinking adults versus the influence of their parents; and (b) the clash between two very strong influences: parental influences and friend influences. The generational gap is also unique to this study because of the historical context. From 1947 to 1997, a comprehensive analysis of Time and News Week magazine articles by Bennet found that “nearly every article was resoundingly critical of gays and lesbians both in language and in content” (Blackwell, 2008, p. 653). Eight years ago, a national survey (Capehart, 2012) found that 31% of respondents stated that same-sex marriage should be legal, while 60% stated that it should be illegal. Just this year, when asked the same question, 48% of respondents stated that same-sex marriage should be legal, and 44% stated that it should be illegal. There is an undeniable rise in support for same-sex marriage; if the trend continues, there will be no other time better to do research than the moment when opinions are basically tied.
Allport’s Contact Hypothesis
In 1954, Allport changed the landscape of psychology with his work on prejudice, specifically his theory of contact hypothesis (Bowen & Bourgeois, 2001). He suggested that people become more accepting and less discriminatory of a group of people once they actually know those people. In other words, more familiarity and experience with a different group leads to better understanding and less stereotypical thoughts. Past research has studied the effect of contact with LGBT people before college (Bowen & Bourgeois, 2001). They found that attitudes towards homosexuals improved drastically when they lived in the same residence halls, took a class to familiarize themselves with the LGBT community, or simply interacted with homosexuals in the classroom. This theory has been used in reference to many different minority groups, specifically ethnic minorities (Bowman, 2012) and it will be interesting to see how it relates to sexual orientation minorities.
Research relating to attitude formation toward the LGBT community is not limited to the United States. In fact, many nations have conducted research concerning this topic; two of the most relevant studies come from Turkey and China. Cirakoglu (2006) found that college-aged students in Turkey applied varying attitudes towards labels relating to the LGBT community, such as “lesbian,” “gay,” or “homosexual.” MANOVA testing strongly suggested that students’ attitudes were directly impacted by their gender, the label, and level of contact. In addition, Cao, Wang, and Gao (2010) researched the correlation between Chinese students’ perception of LGBT individuals and their attitudes towards the LGBT community. Significant results indicated that there are multiple independent variables which impact attitude, including perception, area of study, and contact. These studies are representative of the world-wide interest in the topic of attitude formation towards the LGBT community.
College students are relevant in this overarching discussion for reasons more than that they are easy to sample. For instance, LGB college students are impacted by the manner in which their peers and faculty treat them. Schmidt, Miles, and Welsh sought to better understand the influence of homosexuality on students’ college experience (2011). They found that college is different for heterosexual students than it is for LGB students, as evidenced by the ways they spend their time and the activities in which they participate. In addition, their study strongly indicated that LGB students experience greater confusion on career choices and that career confusion is strongly predicated on perceived discrimination and social support. Also, college students serve as a unique population because of their impact on professional LGBT individuals in one of the safest working environments: the college campus. In other words, college students’ attitudes towards the LGBT community have a direct impact on LGBT professors on college campuses. Previous research indicates that college students tend to view LGBT professors as biased (Anderson & Kanner, 2011). The same study posited two cognitive structures that relate to this topic: subtle prejudice and expectancy violation; both constructs were significantly supported by the data collected in the study. Keeping in mind the unique role of college students in the arena of attitude formation towards the LGBT community, this paper seeks to understand the causes and influences during the process of attitude formation.
Hypotheses and Operationalized Variables
The following independent variables will be measured by self-reported test items: age, gender, ethnicity, number of close friends who identify as LGBT, number of close family members who identify as LGBT, influence of parental beliefs, similarity to parental beliefs, influence of friends’ beliefs, and similarity to friends’ beliefs. The dependent variable (participant’s attitude towards LGBT people) will be measured using the Lamar & Kite’s Components of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality measure (1998). The hypothesis states that college students at a midwestern institution will base their attitude towards the LGBT community more on their friends’ attitude of the LGBT community than on their mother’s attitude or their father’s attitude.
One hundred fifty one students from a midwestern university participated in the study; they did not receive any class credit or reward of any kind. Data from nine participants (one man, six women, and two that did not report their gender) who reported that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning were excluded from the analysis. Therefore, 142 participants’ data are considered in the data analysis. Breakdown of the 142 who reported ethnicity was as follows: 89.4% Caucasian, 7.0% African American, 1.4% Latino, and 2.1% selected Other as their ethnicity. Breakdown of the 140 participants who reported their age was as follows: 50% age 18-20, 40.8% age 21-24, and 7.9% age 25 and above. Data were collected in accordance with the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association, 2010).
A 55-item questionnaire was compiled using questions from the Components of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality scale (Lamar & Kite, 1998), as well as six new items. The questionnaire used all the items on the Components of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality scale, but each item was adjusted to include both “lesbians and gay men” instead of focusing on one of the other group. Items included statements such as, “Lesbians and gay men should be required to register with the police department where they live,” “Gay men and lesbians are a viable part of our society,” and “Most lesbians and gay men like to dress in opposite-sex clothing” (Lamar & Kite, 1998). Of the 49 items on the Components of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality scale, 15 were reverse-scored; all items scored so that a higher number indicates more negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Three new items measured self-reported levels of influence of the participant’s mothers, fathers, and friends, with items such as “My beliefs/morals of homosexuality have been influenced (either positively or negatively) by my mother’s beliefs.” Another three original items measured self-reported levels of similarity to the beliefs of the participant’s mother, father, and friends with items such as “My beliefs/morals of homosexuality are similar to my mother’s beliefs.”
Participants were asked to complete the 55-item questionnaire during class time. The researcher explained the general goal of the study and explicitly stated that the object of the study was not to judge anyone on their opinions but to gain a better understanding of attitudes towards homosexuality. Participants were also informed that they could withdraw from the study at any time, if they became overly uncomfortable. Participants were informed verbally and in written instruction that all responses were anonymous. The completion of the survey took no longer than 15 minutes for the participants to complete. After completion of the surveys, the experimenter debriefed the participants and answered any questions regarding the research study.
There were three independent variables (similarity to father, similarity to mother, similarity to friends) and seven dependent variables (when considering the total score and the 6 sub-scores). To test the hypothesis that a person’s attitude towards LGB individuals differed due to their congruency with their father’s opinion, a perceived congruency with father (low congruency, medium congruency, high congruency) by attitude one-way ANOVA was performed. Results indicated a significant difference in attitude based on congruency with father, F (2,116) = 13.048, p < .001. Following this format, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was run for each variable; specific results can be found in Table 1.1.
Note: NS = a non-significant result, F = the ANOVA score, and p = probability.
Other Results: Correlations
A Pearson bivariate correlation was performed between gender (1 = men, 2 = women) and total attitude score (higher score indicates more negative attitudes towards homosexuality). This analysis indicated a negative correlation between gender (Mean = 1.590 SD = .494) and total attitude score (Mean = 93.308 , SD = 32.814), r (df = 139) = -.360, p < .001. In other words, as gender increased, the total attitude score decreased; women were more likely to have less negative feelings towards homosexuality.
A Pearson bivariate correlation was performed between the number of close friends who identify as LGBT and total attitude score (higher score indicates more negative attitudes towards homosexuality). This analysis indicated a negative correlation between the number of close friends who identify as LGBT (Mean = 2.204 SD = 3.405) and total attitude score (Mean = 93.308 , SD = 32.814), r (df = 141) = -.382, p < .001. In other words, as the number of close LGBT friends increased, the total attitude score decreased; the more homosexual close friends a participant had, the more likely they were to have less negative feelings towards homosexuality.
A Pearson bivariate correlation was performed between the number of close family members who identify as LGBT and total attitude score (higher score indicates more negative attitudes towards homosexuality). This analysis indicated a negative correlation between the number of close family members who identify as LGBT (Mean = .366 SD = .767) and total attitude score (Mean = 93.308 , SD = 32.814), r (df = 141) = -.238, p < .001. In other words, as the number of close LGBT friends increased, the total attitude score decreased; the more homosexual family members a participant had, the more likely they were to have less negative feelings towards homosexuality.
The original hypothesis stated: College students at a midwestern institution will base their attitude towards the LGB community more on their friends’ attitude of the LGBT community than on their fathers’ beliefs or their mothers’ beliefs. Because there were no significant results for the friends variable (on the composite score or any of the sub-scales), only one significant result for the mother variable, and all significant results for the father variable, it is clear that this data does not support the original hypothesis. Instead, it appears as if college students at a midwestern institution will base their attitude towards the LGB community more on their fathers’ attitude of the LGBT community than on their friends’ beliefs or their mothers’ beliefs.
If this study is repeated in the future, there are a few alterations that would improve the quality of the results. First, the participants were verbally informed of the scale direction and it was written on the white board of the classroom, but at least two students’ surveys were not included because they wrote the scale in the wrong direction at the top of their survey. In future studies, the Likert scale should be included at the top of every page. Also, the quality of the original survey questions can be improved. In the present survey, participants were asked how similar their opinion of homosexuality was in comparison to their fathers’ opinions, their mothers’ opinions, and their friends’ opinions. Instead of asking participants to answer the question in that self-report fashion, a more effective prompt would ask participants to answer a Likert scale indicating their fathers’, mothers’, and friends’ support for homosexuality.
In the future, this project can help further the search for the catalyst of
attitude formation towards the LGBT population. As stated earlier, after we
uncover the source of an attitude, we can delve into the details and the cause
of the source’s influence. Future research may include a population with more
variability in ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. In a broad analysis, this
research further reveals the unanswered question: What is the origin of
individuals’ attitudes towards homosexuality? This work can also serve as the
starting block for research into the effects of attitude formation; it would be
interesting to look for patterns in the behavior of those who form their
attitudes in one way or another. At the end of the day, “Thoughts become
feelings, feelings become attitude, and attitude becomes behavior” (J.L. Kemp,
personal communication, September 24, 2012). It is this quest for understanding
that inspired this project and it is that same quest that will fuel similar
projects in the future.
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