How do you reduce prejudice toward transgender people? This new study explains.

Apr 7, 2016

Photo credit: Jeffrey Fountain

By Andrew Gelman

Last year, there was a big scandal in political science when a much-publicized paper was retracted on suspicion of fraud. The paper, “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality,” by Michael LaCour and Donald Green, reported on an experiment that purported to show that a brief doorstep conversation with a political canvasser could cause big changes in attitudes toward same-sex marriage. That paper received major and unskeptical media coverage, including a segment on the radio show “This American Life.” It was a big deal, because social science’s understanding had been that political persuasion is difficult.

The scandal came because the study was faked: The data had suspicious patterns that first author LaCour could not explain, and co-author Green retracted the paper. LaCour also falsified claims about the funding and organization of the study.

In the meantime, though, David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, two political scientists who were involved in uncovering the original fraud, conducted their own follow-up study. It was just published in Science, the same journal that published, then retracted, the LaCour and Green paper.

Here’s what Broockman and Kalla found in their field experiment:

A single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. … 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia. … These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.

This new paper looks reasonable to me, and it’s also helpful that they follow good research practices (for example, Broockman provides replication data for most of his research projects). So, yes, it looks like an open-hearted conversation really can change minds. At least in some circumstances.

Also helpful is Betsy Levy Paluck’s thoughtful overview article that appears in the same issue of Science, where she writes:

What do social scientists know about reducing prejudice in the world? In short, very little. Of the hundreds of studies on prejudice reduction conducted in recent decades, only ~11% test the causal effect of interventions conducted in the real world. Far fewer address prejudice among adults or measure the long-term effects of those interventions. … As the authors acknowledge, these strong results in the wake of a brief intervention might seem surprising. But readers may find it even more surprising that so few previous field studies have tested the causal effect of any type of intervention, aimed at any type of prejudice. … Broockman and Kalla’s results thus do not represent a new challenge to an established field: They stand alone as a rigorous test of this type of prejudice reduction intervention.

In particular, Paluck’s article serves as a bit of a rebuttal to that “This American Life” segment, which was called “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind,” where host Ira Glass said:

There’s this thing called the backfire effect. It’s been documented in all kinds of studies. It shows that when we’re confronted with evidence disapproving what we believe, generally we just dig in and we believe it more. And the rare times that people do change, it’s slow.

But maybe there is no “backfire effect,” maybe that’s just one more bit of incorrect folk wisdom from the psychology literature. Or, at least, such a backfire effect did not seem to apply to Broockman and Kalla’s canvassers who were so effective in persuading people to support transgender rights. At the very least, this suggests a domain-specificity of persuasion and backfire effects.

Glass also said this: “[Don] Green says he and his colleagues have read 900 papers. And they haven’t seen anything like this result — anyone who’s changed people’s views and it lasted like this.” But maybe, as Paluck writes, it’s not that there were 900 papers showing that persuasion couldn’t work; rather, there were 900 irrelevant papers.


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5 comments on “How do you reduce prejudice toward transgender people? This new study explains.

  • The most persuasive interview was with an 11-year-old trans child, Wren Kauffman, on the CBC. He was so matter of fact, and so obviously a rational, lovable child. He had a fiercely loyal younger sister. Encountering him will blow a bigot’s mind with cognitive dissonance. Part of the key is getting sex out the way and focussing on gender.



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  • 2
    Cairsley says:

    Meeting transvestites, transexuals and transgender people is the best way to discover that they are people like the rest of us. Humans, like plenty of other animals, are sexual beings, and biology is making it clear that sexuality manifests itself in a variety of ways. Long ago, when I was still a devout Roman Catholic, I never met (or was aware of meeting) a nonheterosexual person, such was the bubble I lived in. Since my apostasy (propter quam Deo non exsistenti gratias!) I have recognized my own homosexuality (how was that for sexual repression?) and I have met many transvestites, transexuals and transgender people, who have generally come across to me as among the more conscientious people on the planet, and the bravest wherever society’s sexual and interpersonal mores need to be questioned. Definitely, meeting people of any sort in a civil and communicative manner is one of the best ways to overcome prejudices about them and actually learn more about the marvelous variety within humanity.



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  • It’s hard for me to know how to answer this question because it baffles me how anyone could hate someone else just for their sexual inclination in the first place. As I mentioned in another thread about the Channel 4 program My Transgender Summer Camp, how can anyone watch those beautiful, joyous, intelligent children like Maxi who was featured in it and feel anything other than love and admiration for them.

    However looking at the news online this morning I get a clue as to some of the roots of such hatred. Over 50% of Muslims in the UK recently surveyed think that homosexuality should be illegal!

    http://news.sky.com/story/1676189/poll-half-of-muslims-want-homosexuality-banned

    It’s bizarre. Most of those surveyed say they identify as being British, where homophobia is thankfully much less rife than in the USA, but their views are obviously coming from their religion despite that. It does indeed poison everything it touches as Hitch used to say. How saddening, and sickening.



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  • Arkrid Sandwich #3
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:54 am

    It’s bizarre. Most of those surveyed say they identify as being British, where homophobia is thankfully much less rife than in the USA, but their views are obviously coming from their religion despite that. It does indeed poison everything it touches as Hitch used to say. How saddening, and sickening.

    Religion is the bigoted ignorance gap filler, which substitutes for the effort of acquiring real knowledge!
    Working at education and learning, requires mental effort and mental discipline.
    Being spoon-fed by ignorant preachers is the line of least resistance, and the line of avoiding attacks from the easily offended know-it-alls!



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  • Arkrid Sandwich #3
    Apr 11, 2016 at 3:54 am

    but their views are obviously coming from their religion despite that. It does indeed poison everything it touches as Hitch used to say. How saddening, and sickening.

    These religions inculcate taboos against sex education and discussion of sexual issues, so it is no surprise that their deeply immersed leaders are profoundly ignorant and sexually repressed.

    They do however have “faith-thinking” to endorse unevidenced beliefs based on ignorance, so emotional dogmatic bigotry based on their own sexual repressions, becomes the substitute for educated understanding of practical issues.



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