Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Sep 02, 2015

Implicit Anti-Gay Bias Has Decreased – and the Change is Accelerating

Image of the Gay Pride flag

By: Erin Westgate and Rachel G. Riskind

Imagine it’s 2004. Martha Stewart has just been sentenced to prison, details of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal are beginning to emerge, and Massachusetts has become the first U.S. state to legally recognize same-sex marriages. Would you believe that in just 11 years, the federal government – and all fifty U.S. states and territories – would recognize same-sex marriage?

Much has changed since 2004. Positive and complex depictions of lesbian and gay television characters, such as Captain Ray Holt from Brooklyn 99 or Arizona from Gray’s Anatomy, became far more common. The U.S. news media increased coverage of the suicides and peer rejection of LGBT adolescents -- as well as responses like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign. Prominent and wide-ranging legal changes took place, such as the 2010 repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which previously barred LGB people from serving openly in the armed forces. Perhaps most striking is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that marriage is a constitutional right for same-sex couples.

In some ways, the decision should not have come as a surprise. Public opinion on same-sex marriage in the U.S. has shifted nearly as rapidly as its legal status. Gallup polls in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to implement same-sex marriages, pegged national public approval at just 42%.  Shortly before the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015, national public approval stood at 60%. Clearly, self-reported attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed. But as another recent Supreme Court ruling acknowledged in its decision on fair-housing people have not only conscious (or “explicit”) attitudes that they can control and tell you about—the kinds of opinions heard everyday on Facebook—people have implicit attitudes as well. These implicit attitudes may occur outside of conscious awareness or control, and they often impact behavior.

Using data from over the half a million people visitors to Project Implicit who completed the IAT from 2006 to 2013, we were able to look at how implicit attitudes towards lesbian and gay people changed day-by-day over the entire 7.5-year period. What we found was surprising—and encouraging. It is not simply the case that what people are telling pollsters has changed or that it has somehow become less socially acceptable in the past decade to openly express negative opinions about gay people. Instead, we found that people’s implicit attitudes towards gay people have become more positive over time. Implicit bias declined by 13.4% over the seven years from 2006 to 2013—and that trend is accelerating.

We were able to measure people’s implicit attitudes using a test called the Implicit Association Test (or IAT). You can take it yourself here. The task is simple: Imagine you are sitting at your computer screen, where you see words or pictures associated with gay people or straight people. You also see positive words like “beautiful” and “good”, and negative words like “terrible” and “bad.”  Your job is to sort the positive words into the “good” category, and the negative words into the “bad” category. Then you do the same thing for the images and words associated with gay or straight people – you sort gay images and words into the “gay” category and straight images and words into the “straight category”.

But then it gets more complicated. Instead of just sorting the pictures and words into two categories (“good or bad”, or “gay or straight”), you have to sort them into all the categories – “good”, “bad”, “gay”, “straight” - at once. First, you sort words and pictures using one key (“e”) for “positive words or straight people”  (and another key for “negative words or gay people”). Then the task switches, so that you have to sort the words and pictures with one key (“e”) for “negative words or straight people” (and another key for “positive words or gay people”). The idea is that people who have positive implicit associations with gay people will be faster when positive words are paired with gay people, and people who have negative implicit associations with gay people will be slower. Tests like the IAT let us measure implicit attitudes that people may be unable or unwilling to report explicitly. By tracking data from hundreds of participants to Project Implicit everyday from 2006 to 2013, we were able to get a good idea of how implicit attitudes towards gay people changed over time.

In addition to the overall accelerating decline in implicit anti-gay bias, we found that some groups’ implicit attitudes shifted more rapidly than others. Age was the biggest factor, followed by race and political orientation. Younger people, White and Hispanic people, and liberal people all showed larger declines in implicit bias. What’s really important, though is that we saw declines in implicit bias across the board. Almost every group showed signs of change, suggesting that we are seeing a broad cultural shift in implicit attitudes towards lesbian and gay people.

This is the first large-scale change in implicit attitudes that has been documented. Although implicit attitudes are not changing as  quickly as explicit attitudes, they are changing, and the rate of change has picked up in recent years. Cultural change may begin with just a few people that then ripples out, affecting everybody. Perhaps the key to enduring change in implicit attitudes lies not just in changing individuals, but in changing the cultures they live in.


Erin Westgate is a PhD student  in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia. She studies the experience of thinking and the underlying principles that govern conscious and unconscious thought. She is particularly interested in boredom, interest, and what makes some thoughts more interesting than others. You can visit her website here and reach her at

Rachel G. Riskind is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Her research focuses on sexual orientation, family life, bias, and reproductive health and decision-making in adolescence and young adulthood.  You can visit her website here and you can reach her at


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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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