We like to think of sexual orientation as something that is pretty stable and that, once established during childhood or early adolescence, doesn’t change much. We certainly don’t think it can change in response to fleeting, casual influences from our environment.
Well, a new experimental study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology says what we think is wrong.
Across three experiments, researchers at UCLA found that heterosexually-identified men and women reported significantly more same-sex sexual desires and interests when they were exposed to positive, supportive information about homosexuality than when they were exposed to negative, stigmatizing information.
In Experiment 1, heterosexually-identified Craigslist and Facebook users rated themselves as having more same-sex sexual fantasies, attractions, and behaviors when they were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article titled “Study Reveals Americans are Comfortable with Homosexuality” than an article titled “Study Reveals American Anti-Homosexual Attitudes.
In Experiment 2, heterosexually-identified college students rated photos of same-sex individuals as more attractive when they were randomly assigned to a statistic about college life claiming that “a recent study found that over 90% of non-straight college students report that they feel very accepted on their college campus” than a statistic claiming that “a recent study found that over 90% of non-straight students who drop out of college report that they were verbally or physically assaulted by another student because of their sexuality.”
Finally, in Experiment 3, heterosexually-identified college students rated themselves as having more same-sex sexual fantasies, attractions, and behaviors when photos of same-sex couples were preceded with subliminal (i.e., too short to be noticed on a conscious level) images of happy (i.e., positive) faces compared to angry (i.e., negative) faces.
This is quite remarkable. This is essentially the first experimental evidence out there that factors outside of actual sexual experience can causally shape how we perceive our own sexual orientation.
Now think of the implications of this. If reading a single pro-or anti-gay news story or statistics or even seeing a few unconscious, subliminal pro-or anti-gay images can make us perceive ourselves as more or less gay, imagine what a whole life of pro-or anti-gay upbringing, education, comments, media exposure, etc. can have. Not only on our attitudes toward homosexuality, but also on our own sense of our sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation is a much more fluid thing than we think it is. I can’t wait for more science to show us just how fluid…
Preciado, M. A., Johnson, K. L., & Peplau, L. A. (2013). The impact of cues of stigma and support on self-perceived sexual orientation among heterosexually identified men and women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 477-485. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.006