Research & Insights

The Comforting Possibility of Change

Homophobia and transphobia can take a serious mental and physical toll on lesbian, gay and bisexual people. To help those who are victimized because of their sexual preference or gender identity, some communications campaigns offer words of comfort. But new research from the London Business School and Stanford University suggests that the best way to give people a sense of hope and to make them feel that they belong is to assure them that bigoted attitudes can change.

The study, published in a 2013 issue of the journal Personality and Social psychology Bulletin, involved a series of experiments conducted by researchers Aneeta Rattan and Nalini Ambady. Both heterosexual cisgender participants and LGBTQ participants were asked to rate how comforting they found various messages from the “It Gets Better” project – a campaign launched on YouTube to “communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.” The researchers found that for LGBTQ participants, messages that emphasized social change were more comforting than messages that simply emphasized finding a caring social circle.

The researchers first analyzed the 50 most viewed “It Gets Better” videos for their message content. They found that comfort and connection were mentioned significantly more frequently than social change.

They then conducted a series of experiments in which groups of heterosexual cisgender participants and LGBTQ participants were shown one of three supportive messages. All the messages contained a message of comfort –“I know that the people in your household or in your school may not understand you…but I want you to know that it gets better.” Some of the messages also included a statement of social connection: “You will never have to deal with those jerks again if you don’t want to. You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you.” Other statements included a statement of social change: “the attitudes of society will change.” Participants then used a scale to rank how comforting they felt the statements were.

The researchers found that although heterosexual participants felt both the social connection message and the social change message were equally comforting, LGBTQ participants felt that the social change message was significantly more comforting.

“Majority group members [in this case, heterosexuals] focused more on contradicting the social rejection inherent in prejudice with an emphasis on social connection and liking, rather than addressing the fact that social change is possible and prejudice can be reduced,” the researchers explained.

“It is critical to emphasize that all messages of support were experienced as comforting by LGBTQ participants,” they note. However, “the recommendation to those who seek to draw practical applications for constructing an optimal message of…support…may be to emphasize the need to add social change themes…to the statements of support.”

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Aneeta Rattan, London Business School
Nalini Ambady,Stanford University

Posted: October 28, 2015
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