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Face-to-face conversation can change attitudes toward transgender people, study finds

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Two protesters hold up signs against passage of legislation in North Carolina, which limits the bathroom options for transgender people, during a rally in Charlotte, N.C. on March 31. The rally drew around 100 people at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.

LOS ANGELES » A face-to-face conversation can significantly alter people’s views about transgender people, a new study shows. Two California researchers have found that about one in 10 voters’ attitudes about transgender people changed after just a 10-minute conversation with a canvasser.

The findings, published in the journal Science, offer a template for canvassers looking to more effectively reach out to voters with potentially opposing beliefs. The results also serve as vindication for the outreach methods developed by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after a previous study employing the center’s strategies was retracted following allegations that the study’s lead author may have falsified data.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center began developing its canvassing program after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state of California—a turn of events that caught gay rights supporters off guard. Since then, the center’s Leadership LAB has made an effort to go to the areas in L.A. County where voters approved the marriage ban, to speak with residents and develop an effective strategy when talking to them about gay rights. (A federal appeals court ruled Proposition 8 was unconstitutional in 2010.)

Canvassers asked respondents to recall and discuss a time when they themselves were treated unfairly because they were seen as different. This practice, called “analogic perspective taking,” seemed to be very effective—but the lab’s director, David Fleischer, wanted to see if researchers could gather hard data to show whether or not the method was working.

“When I got to know them, I realized the kind of canvassing they do is quite different than the kind of canvassing I was accustomed to seeing,” said Stanford University political scientist David Broockman, one of the current study’s authors, likening the method to cognitive behavioral therapy. “What they’re doing is not trying to tell their sob stories and get empathy; what they’re doing is asking the voter to do mental work and think about the experiences they’ve had.”

Very little research has been done on these kinds of interventions, scientists said.

“Of the hundreds of studies on prejudice reduction conducted in recent decades, only (about) 11 percent test the causal effect of interventions conducted in the real world,” Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University, who was not involved with the paper, wrote in a commentary on the study. “Far fewer address prejudice among adults or measure the long-term effects of those interventions.”

The canvassing campaign provided an opportunity to set up a controlled experiment to see how well the methods worked.

“All along the way we tried to measure ourselves … but there’s simply no substitute for having rigorous independent measurement, so that’s why we sought it out,” Fleischer said.

Fleischer reached out to Columbia University political scientist Donald Green, who introduced them to then-University of California, Los Angeles graduate student Michael LaCour. The center’s volunteers would go door-to-door to speak with people, and LaCour would work with the center and collect online survey data.

LaCour and Green’s findings, that gay canvassers could significantly change voter opinions with a face-to-face conversation, was greeted with great fanfare in December 2014. Green later brought on Broockman and Joshua Kalla to follow up the work by doing a similar study in south Florida, and the then-University of California, Berkeley graduate students quickly began to find problems with the research.

“When we were setting about following up … there were a bunch of things that didn’t look right,” Broockman said, “so we sort of started to get suspicious.”

The survey response rate was unnaturally high; the error rates were strangely low. And when they went to the vendor that had purportedly administered the online surveys, company representatives said they had never worked with LaCour. (LaCour later admitted that he had failed to pay survey respondents, but said that the survey data had already been destroyed in accordance with ethics guidelines.)

That failure to pay participants was a potential indication, Green said in an earlier Los Angeles Times report, that no follow-up survey had ever been performed.

Broockman, Kalla and Peter Aronow of Yale University sent their report to Green, who, faced with their findings, requested in a May 19 letter that Science retract the paper.

“I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events and apologize to the editors, reviewers, and readers of Science,” he wrote.

But even as Broockman, now at Stanford University, and Kalla were uncovering the irregularities in the previous study, they were still set to do a similar experiment in the Miami-Dade area to see if the canvassing method could shift attitudes toward transgender people. This time, they were determined that the experiment be done right.

Around the same time the previous study was published, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed an ordinance protecting transgender people against discrimination in December 2014. SAVE, a south Florida LGBT organization, asked the Los Angeles LGBT Center to help them perform similar canvassing work—this time on transgender rights instead of gay rights.

Transgender people are at 25 times greater risk of abuse, assault and suicide than the general population, the study authors note. And as transgender rights come increasingly into the public eye, advocates fear that this could prompt a backlash against an already marginalized community.

During the south Florida effort, Broockman and Kalla set up an experiment in which 56 canvassers went door-to-door and encouraged active perspective-taking with 501 voters. They were asked to think of a time when they had felt mistreated for being different. The scientists also canvassed a control group of respondents about recycling. The researchers followed up with online surveys at three days, three weeks, six weeks and three months.

The scientists found that those who were asked to do analogic perspective-taking were significantly more likely to exhibit a higher tolerance toward transgender people than those who were in the control group. The effect, the researchers said, represented an even greater attitude change than the shift in American attitudes between 1998 and 2012 toward gays and lesbians.

“They’ve made their entire process enormously transparent,” Paluck said in an interview, “so that’s one reason to trust in the results. They’re part of a growing number of social scientists who have been responding to concerns about psychology, social science and economics and how untransparent their results are.”

Unlike the retracted study, which found that gay canvassers were effective at changing voters’ minds, Broockman and Kalla’s paper found that changing people’s minds on transgender rights did not require that the canvasser be transgender as well. That’s good news, Broockman said, because it means that anyone—either transgender people or their allies—can do such work effectively.

“In some ways, it’s actually a lot more encouraging than the original … because allies are effective. We instead find that all kinds of canvassers can be effective, especially if they’re highly experienced and skilled.”

While the LGBT center’s perspective-taking method seems to be effective, the paper did not attempt to explain exactly why it seemed to work, Paluck pointed out.

“This study just showed that it could work, it didn’t show exactly why it worked,” Paluck said. “That would be a great follow-up series of studies — to say, OK, what is the key ingredient of this canvassing conversation?”

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©2016 Los Angeles Times

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