Bernard Winograd has written an intriguing post, summarizing the findings one must grapple with when thinking about how attitudes can change within a single generation. The rapid change in the USA on gay marriage has caught many people’s attention, coming at a time when many popular books are saying that political attitudes are to some degree heritable. How can we resolve this apparent contradiction?
From my perspective as a social psychologist, who studies morality from an evolutionary perspective, rapid attitude change is not hard to explain. I am impressed by the consistent data on heritability, showing that some very important parts of our moral and political views are innate. But innate does not mean hard-wired or unmalleable; it means “structured in advance of experience, and experience can edit and alter that first draft.” (That’s a paraphrase from Gary Marcus). So even if one is born predisposed to questioning authority and seeking out diversity, life experiences can still alter one’s habitual reactions. Becoming a parent, especially of girls, seems to make people more conservative (they perceive more threats in the world).
But even if we assume no change in the underlying dispositions, the path from innate temperament to attitudes on a specific issue is long and complex. There are many ways for attitudes to change rapidly in a population, even on politically controversial topics. People’s attitudes (on gay marriage, taxes, etc.) are responsive to at least these three forces:
1) Gut feelings, such as the disgust that many straight men feel when they see images of gay male sex, or—in earlier decades—when they simply thought about gay men, which may have triggered thoughts of gay sex. But these emotional responses change by the sorts of processes the behaviorists studied: they can be reinforced or extinguished by experience. We “habituate” – we get used to things – when they begin to appear frequently and nothing bad accompanies their appearance. So when gay people started coming out of the closet in the 1980s, then appearing on television in the 1990s, and then appearing in everyone’s extended family by the 2000s, people’s disgust reactions diminished. Not just generationally, but in the same individuals – they didn’t find homosexuality as freakish and gross as they had when they were much younger. (This is the “sushi” example that Winograd referred to.)
2) Perceptions of how others are reacting to a norm violation. When everyone else was reacting with horror, disgust, or ridicule to gay people, that created a mutually reinforcing cycle of horror, disgust, and ridicule. Among my first exposures to homosexuality was the creepy pair of assassins—Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint—in the 1971 film Diamonds are Forever. During the final fight scene, Bond grabs Wint’s arms, pulls them between Wint’s legs from behind, pushes a bomb into Wint’s hands, and then hoists Wint’s arms up in a move that would appear to cause great pain to his testicles. But Wint squeals with delight because, you know, James Bond is somehow stimulating him “down there.” (You can watch the scene here.) As an 8-year-old I didn’t know what to make of the fact that Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint held hands. But I did know that they were freakish and gross, and that it was great fun for the whole audience to laugh at them. This doesn’t happen much anymore. Shared anger at homophobic statements is increasingly common, and this change in publicly shared emotions influences the attitudes of mature adults, not just of the next cohort of adults.
3) Reasoning. My research shows that it’s very hard to change anyone’s mind when their gut feelings or group’s ideology are pointing the other way. David Hume was right: Reason is the servant of the passions. But once intuitions and gut feelings have calmed down, and once public norms are beginning to change – at least to the point where people find multiple views expressed by people they like and value – then people can become responsive to good arguments. So Winograd is correct that we can’t change people’s minds by rational argument alone – at least when emotions and group loyalties are in play. But when people are no longer viscerally opposed to a proposition, then reasoning can begin to exert an influence. And once the backers of gay marriage shifted their rhetoric from political rights (in 2008) to focusing on the value and importance of commitment (in 2012), it was difficult for opponents of gay marriage to offer reasons why preventing gay people from committing to each other would strengthen heterosexual marriages. The pro-marriage side had much better arguments, and this may have made a difference.
In conclusion: I agree with Winograd that more research is needed on rapid political changes such as happened with gay marriage. I just don’t see such changes as being incompatible with what we are now learning about the heritability of temperament and other traits that predispose people to find the ideas (and foods and clothing styles) of left or right more attractive.
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of business ethics at New York University, and the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.