Remember the time last year when the academic journal, Science, retracted a study by UCLA Ph.D. candidate Michael LaCour purporting to show that in-person canvassing could increase support for marriage equality over concerns that the study’s data had likely been faked? As had data in other studies published by the same author?
Well, the authors who originally raised questions about the canvassing study have conducted research of their own (with publicly-available data, this time) and found that LaCour’s study, while discredited, was at least false in the right direction.
Published again in Science, researchers David Broockman and Joshua Kalla found that in-person canvassing was able to dramatically reduce transphobia through conversations that encouraged “actively taking the perspective of others.” Furthermore, the authors found that the attitude change was sticky: When voters were re-contacted three months after they had been canvassed, transphobia remained diminished.
To the extent that the authors’ findings deviated from LaCour’s conclusions, they were even more encouraging. While the discredited study had found that attitude change toward marriage equality was only likely if the canvasser was gay or lesbian, Broockman and Kalla found that both cis and trans canvassers were able to significantly reduce transphobia:
The key, the authors found, wasn’t the messenger so much as it was the messenger’s ability to induce “active, effortful processing” among the voters being canvassed. In other words, canvassers were able to reduce transphobia by encouraging voters to articulate the perspective of an out-group for themselves. As the authors explain their methodology:
Canvassers informed voters that they might face a decision about the issue (whether to vote to repeal the law protecting transgender people); canvassers asked voters to explain their views; and canvassers showed a video that presented arguments on both sides. Canvassers also defined the term “transgender” at this point and, if they were transgender themselves, noted this. The canvassers next attempted to encourage “analogic perspectivetaking.” Canvassers first asked each voter to talk about a time when they themselves were judged negatively for being different. The canvassers then encouraged voters to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences, hoping to facilitate voters’ ability to take transgender people’s perspectives. The intervention ended with another attempt to encourage active processing by asking voters to describe if and how the exercise changed their mind.
The results were striking. In-person conversations were able to raise voters’ positive affect (measured on a “feelings thermometer”) by roughly ten percentage points. For perspective, the authors note that this level of attitude change, measured after one conversation and confirmed to have persisted for at least three months, is greater than the American public’s overall change in positive affect toward gays and lesbians between 1998 and 2012.
Perhaps most importantly, the authors also found that the attitude changes produced via in-person canvassing withstood anti-trans attacks later on:
As the above chart shows, six weeks after the initial contact, the authors re-surveyed participants and showed them one of three anti-trans attack ads from recent campaigns against non-discrimination laws. While the ads did have an immediate and negative effect, as one might expect, the effect was not enough to fully overcome the initial pro-inclusion attitude shift. Additionally, the ads’ effects faded, with support for the non-discrimination law in question returning to pre-attack ad (and post-canvassing) levels over time, suggesting that the canvassing’s effects were stronger.
To be clear, it’s entirely possible that these results are the product of context. Transgender issues have only recently become salient for much of the American public, which means that attitudes toward trans inclusion are less likely to be as deeply ingrained as attitudes toward, say, abortion. Either way, though, this study is welcome confirmation for those who are active in LGBT politics that in-person voter contact — showing up at people’s doors and talking to them about their feelings toward sexual minorities — is an effective way to push back against hate campaigns and increase support for LGBT rights.