A new study has found that socially conservative individuals who are better able to take the perspective of others tend to exhibit less prejudice towards sexual minorities. The findings, which appear in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, suggest that empathy plays an important role in the link between political ideology and discrimination against LGB individuals.
“Research has consistently reported that lower empathy is associated with higher sexual prejudice, and there has also been some promising research on empathy exercises as interventions for various forms of prejudice,” said study author Arthur D. Marsden, a graduate student at Syracuse University.
“For those reasons, we wanted to explore the connection between empathy and sexual prejudice more. Additionally, while there has been research on the connections between political ideology and empathy, political ideology and prejudice, and empathy and prejudice, there was no research that had looked at all three of these variables together yet, and we wanted to fill that gap in the literature.”
The researchers had 1,143 heterosexual participants report their political ideology on social issues on a 7-point scale that ranged from very liberal to very conservative. They also completed a measure of empathy known as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index and an assessment of sexual prejudice known as the Intolerant Schema Measure.
Marsden and his colleagues found that conservative participants were more likely to agree with statements such as “Lesbians should undergo therapy to change their sexual orientation” and “Movies that approve of male homosexuality bother me,” which was partially explained by reduced levels of empathy.
“We found that more conservative social political ideology was associated with lower empathy and more sexual prejudice, while higher empathy was associated with lower sexual prejudice,” Marsden explained. “We also proposed that facets of empathy — specifically, the tendencies to feel compassion for others and to take the perspective of others (empathic concern and perspective taking, respectively) — would explain part of the relationship between conservative social political ideology and sexual prejudice.”
“Interestingly, our results differed by gender; for women, both perspective taking and empathic concern explained some of this relationship, but for men, only perspective taking did. Because of that, and because perspective taking may be more amenable to change than empathic concern, empathy interventions may be more effective overall at reducing sexual prejudice in conservatives when they target perspective taking.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“While we were able to obtain a large sample, all our participants were university students, who of course tend to be younger and more liberal than the overall U.S. population,” Marsden said. “Ideally, future research would look at these relationships in a more representative sample. Our study was also non-experimental, and we cannot say for sure that political ideology is influencing empathy.”
“Also, it is important to note that sexual prejudice is very complicated, and these of course are not the only variables involved,” the researcher added. “Our results do not suggest that every conservative university student is sexually prejudiced or low in empathy — only that those higher in conservative political ideology are, on average, lower in these areas.”
The study, “The Role of Empathy in the Relationship Between Social Political Ideology and Sexual Prejudice in Heterosexual College Students in the U.S.“, was authored by Arthur D. Marsden and Michael D. Barnett.