Book Review: Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights
Citation: Brian F. Harrison and Melissa R. Michelson, New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2017, 240 pp.
Generally speaking, public attitudes and opinions tend to remain stable over time — examples of this constancy can be seen upon assessing support for abortion rights, the death penalty or public opinions about paying taxes. Incongruent with this claim, public support of LGBT rights and marriage equality have skyrocketed in recent decades. This major change in public opinion leads to questions such as, What is causing this attitudinal shift? How does one’s identity impact their perceptions and opinions? And could identity-priming help facilitate attitudinal change? In their book Listen, We Need to Talk, Brian Harrison, PhD, and Melissa Michelson, PhD, seek to answer these questions and more.
Through randomized experimental trials, Harrison and Michelson investigated public attitudes surrounding LGBT rights and more specifically marriage equality, while also testing their Theory of Dissonant Identity Priming (TDIP). TDIP hypothesizes that participants are more likely to be open to attitudinal change if they share an in-group identity with the person delivering a prime. In other words, if they share a part of their identity with the experimenter, they will be more open or motivated to hear what is being said and experience a shift in attitude or belief — even if the prime is dissonant to opinions commonly held by their identity. This theory taps into the fundamental need for inherent positive self-regard and both expectancy confirmation and violation. Harrison and Michelson hypothesize that the power of shared in-group identity will allow participants to become open to attitudinal shifts when presented with otherwise potentially dissonant primes in support of marriage equality. They believe that these dissonant primes in combination with a shared in-group identity will cause “cognitive speedbumps.” hopefully allowing for attitudinal change.
In order to facilitate this, Harrison and Michelson conducted 17 randomized-control experiments, 14 of which directly tested their theory. These experiments utilized face-to-face interaction, telephone communication and online surveys to collect participant data. Their aim was to test various in-group identity primes to include: sports team affiliation, religious identity, ethnoracial identity and political partisanship. Within these various groups, some have historically been more accepting and supportive of LGBT rights and marriage equality, while others have not. For example among sports fans, notoriously the NFL and football fans have endorsed a culture of homophobia, while the NHL has made numerous efforts to support and affirm LGBT persons. In order to test the efficacy of TDIP, Harrison and Michelson conducted five sports-related experiments, three of which were aimed at professional football fans and one each for hockey and baseball.
Their third football experiment consisted of undergraduate volunteers surveying passersby in Appleton, Wis., a place where for many ardently supporting the Green Bay Packers is a particularly salient part of their identity. The surveys these students were handing out first asked questions concerning the participant's affection for or indifference for the Green Bay Packers, and then they were exposed to either a treatment or control elite prime. A prime is considered an "elite prime" if it comes from an influential member of the identity group. In this case, half of the surveys handed out contained the elite prime stating that the “Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler… supports same-sex marriage. What do you think?” and the other half contained a control of the same text but instead referenced the rap music icon Jay-Z. The results showed a significant increase in support for marriage equality among Packers fans who were exposed to the elite in-group prime of LeRoy Butler. In fact, support for marriage equality was 14 percentage points higher among Packers fans who were shown this prime versus the control prime of Jay-Z.
This model remained largely consistent for the remaining experiments which covered religiosity, ethnoracial diversity and political partisanship. The authors discuss how, generally speaking, more secular persons tend to support marriage equality, while more religious persons do not. Ethnoracial comparisons from their study concluded white persons were the most accepting of marriage equality, followed closely by Latino persons, while Black persons were markedly the least accepting of the three. And lastly, more liberal persons and Democrats tend to support marriage equality, while conservatives and Republicans tend to oppose. Authors of the book speculate on the intersectional impact of identities. For example, a potential for increased religiosity among African Americans contributing to their continued disapproval of LGBT persons.
This book, while covering a wide breadth of populations, experimental methodologies and technical jargon, is written in a way which is approachable for persons both in and out of academia. It provides highly detailed statistics, tables and appendices, while also covering necessary historical and background information concerning the fight for equal rights among LGBT persons. Harrison and Michelson, both professors of political science, made sure that their “pracademic” book would not only focus on answering abstract, ethereal questions but would also speak to the active practitioner and address their concerns. This book is a timely and informative piece and a must-read for any and all interested in LGBT rights, marriage equality, identity-priming and attitudinal change.