Listen, We Need to Talk
On Mar 1., Skidmore College hosted Dr. Brian F. Harrison and Dr. Melissa R. Michelson as part of their ten-week tour to promote their book, Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights. The book, which is the number one new release for Amazon in their civil rights category, details fourteen different experiments that test attitude change theory, particularly how attitude changes toward LGBT rights are formed. Their theory is that people will change their opinions when respected individuals from their primed in-group (i.e. religion, race, sports team) express a dissonant message. Harrison and Michelson tested this theory in a variety of randomized experiments in which they primed different identities of individuals to see if it would create openness to information. They further hypothesized this openness would reflect an attitude shift.
In their lecture, Harrison and Michelson described four different experiments they conducted for the book. The first was a randomized experiment about how sports-fan identity could be utilized to change attitude toward LGBT rights. The experiment, conducted in Appleton, Wisconsin in October and November of 2014, followed a survey format. The first question determined whether the subject was a football fan, particularly a Packers supporter. The subjects would then read a quote in support of LGBT rights, and a different survey would indicate that the quote was either by Jay-Z or Packers player Roy Butler. What they found was that people who identified as Packers fans and read the statement, believing it was by Roy Butler, were more supportive of LGBT rights than the control group (made of sports fans who believed the quote was by Jay-Z).
They also tested this hypothesis in a religious community where the results were the same. When people who identified as religious and read positive statements about LGBT rights, believing it was by a reverend, they were more likely to also be supportive of LGBT rights. This result was reflected in two additional experiments that Harrison and Michelson described, which primed racial and partisan identity.
The authors concluded the talk by summarizing their hope that their research will shape public opinion. “Public opinion matters in politics,” they said. Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton signed Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), but by 2012, Obama came out in support of marriage equality. Harrison joked that in 2013, their own editor advised them against making the book so central on LGBT rights; today the editor wants more rainbows on its cover. Their final note urged the audience to have contentious conversations about difficult issues to continue to shape public opinion.
(Photo Courtesy of Professor Christopher B. Mann)