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Legalizing same-sex marriage: Politics, personalities, and persuasion tricks.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In honor of the big decisions occurring this week in SCOTUS regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, I am re-posting a slightly edited version of this piece from the archives of my WordPress blog. This was originally posted in June 2011, shortly after New York legalized same-sex marriage. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.


This is a big week for marriage.

Today and tomorrow, the Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing arguments concerning the constitutionality of two recent laws regarding same-sex marriage, Proposition 8 (which specifies that only heterosexual marriages will be recognized in the state of California) and the Defense of Marriage Act (a federal law that officially defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman).

Many people are wondering what this means for the future of same-sex marriage in the United States. Why exactly is this such a contentious issue, and why do Americans’ opinions seem to differ so greatly? When it comes to marriage equality, why can’t we all just get along?

Where Does a Same-Sex Marriage Attitude Come From?

The reason why only nine states in the USA have legalized same-sex marriage most likely has something to do with the large number of senators (and, presumably, American citizens) who are against it. But other than the obvious factors (like religion and age), what else might make someone especially likely to reject the idea of same-sex marriage?

Fresno: Proposition 8 RallyWe might find some answers by looking at empirical research on the psychological roots of political ideology. Conservative social attitudes (which typically include an opposition to same-sex marriage) are strongly related to preferences for stability, order, and certainty. In fact, research suggests that these attitudes may be part of a compensatory mental process motivated by anxiety; people who feel particularly threatened by uncertainty cope with it by placing great importance on norms, rules, and rigidity. As a result, people who are particularly intolerant of ambiguity, live in unstable circumstances, or simply have an innate need for order, structure, and closure are more likely to hold attitudes that promote rigidity and conventional social norms – meaning that they are most likely to be against same-sex marriage.

What does it mean to be intolerant of ambiguity? Well, would you rather see the world around you as clear and straightforward, or would you rather see everything as complicated and multidimensional? People who fall into the first category are much more likely to want everything in life (including gender roles, interpersonal relationships, and conceptualizations of marriage) to be dichotomous, rigid, and clear-cut. “Ambiguity-intolerant” people are also, understandably, more likely to construe ambiguous situations as particularly threatening. After all, if you are inherently not comfortable with the idea of a complicated, shades-of-gray world, any situation that presents you with this type of uncertainty will be seen as potentially dangerous. This is likely what’s happening when a conservative sees an ambiguous situation (e.g. a same-sex couple’s potential marriage) as a source of threat (e.g. to the sanctity of marriage).

Why Is Attitude Change So Hard?

After reading the section above, it should be fairly clear that there’s a problem with how both pro- and anti-same-sex-marriage proponents are viewing the other side’s point of view. The issue is not really that there’s one way to see the issue, and the other side simply isn’t seeing it that way; the issue is that both sides are focusing on entirely different things.

Rainbow FlagOverall, liberal ideology paints society as inherently improvable, and liberals are therefore motivated by a desire for eventual societal equality; conservative ideology paints society as inherently hierarchical, and conservatives are therefore motivated by a desire to make the world as stable and safe as possible. So while the liberals are banging their heads against the wall wondering why conservatives are against human rights, the conservatives are sitting on the other side wondering why on earth the liberals would want to create chaos, disorder, and dangerous instability. It boils down to a focus on equality versus a focus on order. Without understanding that, no one’s ever going to understand what the other side wants to know and hear, and all sides’ arguments will fall on deaf ears.1

But there’s another mental process at play. When someone has a strong attitude about something (liberal or conservative), the mind works very hard to protect it. When faced with information about a given topic, people pay attention to (and remember) the arguments that strengthen their attitudes, and they ignore, forget, or misremember any arguments that go against them. Even if faced with evidence that proves how a given attitude is undeniably wrong, people will almost always react by simply becoming more polarized; they will leave the interaction even more sure that their attitude is correct than they were before. So even if each side understood how to frame their arguments – even if liberals pointed out the ways in which same-sex marriage rights would help stabilize the economy, or conservatives argued to liberals that they could provide equal rights through civil unions rather than through marriage – it’s still very unlikely that either side would successfully change anyone’s attitude about anything.

If Attitudes Are So Stubborn, How Have They Changed In The Past?

So how did it happen? As one specific example, how did New York end up legalizing same-sex marriage in June 2011 with a 33-29 vote?

I’d wager a guess that part of it had to do with the five other states that had legalized same-sex marriage by that point and seen their heterosexual marriages remain just as sacred as they ever were before. As same-sex marriage becomes more commonplace (and heterosexual marriages remain unaffected), it will also become less threatening; as it becomes less threatening, it will evoke less of a threat response from people who don’t deal well with ambiguity.

But I can offer another serious contender: Amendment S5857-2011.

This amendment, which states that religious institutions opposed to same-sex marriage do not have to perform them, was passed shortly before the same-sex marriage legalization bill. There’s a very powerful social norm at work in our interactions, and it shapes how we respond to people’s attempts at persuasion: When we feel like someone has conceded something to us, we feel pressured to concede something back. This is called a reciprocal concession.

Let’s say a Girl Scout comes to your door and asks if she can sell you ten boxes of cookies. You feel bad saying no, but your waistline doesn’t need the cookies and your wallet doesn’t need the expense. After you refuse the sale, she responds by asking if you’d like to purchase five boxes instead. You then change your mind and agree to buy five boxes; after all, if the girl scout was willing to concede those five boxes of cookies, you feel pressured to concede something in return – like some of your money. That’s the power of reciprocal concessions.

This, in my opinion, is a good contender to explain what happened in the New York State Senate back in 2011. The vote was dead even: 31 for, 31 against. When the Senate passed the Amendment, this was a concession from the pro-same-sex-marriage side, which, according to the logic of reciprocal concessions, should have encouraged no-voting senators to reciprocate by conceding their votes. For two of them, it worked.

So now, we’ve seen that personality, ideology, and attitudes can all play a role in our attitudes towards same-sex marriage, and that votes might even swing because of techniques that we could have learned from our local Girl Scouts. This means is that it’s absolutely essential for everyone involved in the debate this week to understand that we won’t all respond to the same types of arguments, reasoning, or pleas. Rather, it is imperative that we consider how a focus on equality or stability might shape what information we pay attention to, and what values we deem most important.


1 I recognize that these are generalizations, and these descriptions do not accurately represent every liberal person and every conservative person. I also recognize that individual political attitudes are more complex than this distinction may make them out to be, and that religious ideology plays a very strong role as well. However, the focus on equality vs. stability is, at its core, the fundamental difference between liberal and conservative political ideology.


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Image of Supreme Court Justices courtesy of Steve Petteway via Wikimedia Commons; part of the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States. Available as a public domain image.

Image of Rainbow Flag courtesy of Benson Kua via Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr. Available through a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Image of Proposition 8 Rally courtesy of Richard Johnstone via Wikimedia Commons; originally posted to Flickr. Available through a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Image of Stephen Colbert speaking to Neil Patrick Harris courtesy of Merah Bartowski via Tumblr.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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