A new study suggests that people are are unwilling to report their sexual orientation during national surveys. Similarly, the analysis found that people who hold anti-gay views may be unwilling to say how they really feel about gay people. Why is this, and why is it important?
The study, conducted by researchers from Ohio State and Boston Universities, aimed at seeing just how large a bias there is in national research polls where, it is believed, respondents will often give what they perceive as socially acceptable answers.
The study, involving 2,500 participants, had respondents take an online survey that asked a total of eight questions relating to sexual orientation, three involving respondents’ own sexuality and the remaining five relating to how they felt about topics like gay marriage, and whether they were comfortable with gay people in the workplace.
Researchers divided the group of respondents in half. They used a research method dubbed “veiled reporting” that, while still observing rigorous best practices, allowed half of respondents virtual anonymity by making it almost impossible to connect individual answers to respondents’ identities — a more detailed report on how this was achieved is available here.
The research teams then compared the veiled report answers to those of the other half of the sample who were used as a control group and whose answers were not anonymous.
What the researchers found was that the bias may indeed be significant.
Under the veiled method of reporting people, self identified as non-heterosexual 65% more, and reported same-sex sexual encounters 59% more.
Similarly, respondents were far more likely to report anti-gay sentiment under the veiled method. In a scenario of having a gay manager at work, there was a 67% increase in reported disapproval. Even more alarming, under the veiled model there was a staggering 71% increase in respondents saying they believed it was okay to discriminate against the LGB population.
Fascinatingly, fewer respondents under the veiled report method supported the idea that sexual orientation can be changed than in the control group. This suggests that the belief that people can change their sexuality may be more socially acceptable but that it might not actually be believed.
What is supremely interesting about this research is that it appears to reveal two key perceptions that might at first seem at odds with one another: that it is both undesirable to be openly gay and that it is also undesirable to be openly anti-gay. Why is this? It may be a product of the rapid change that we have seen over the past few decades where gay rights acceptance has grown at incredible rate, leaving both sides still unsure as to the shape of public opinion. Only further research will illuminate the true facts, however.
There are some important things to note about this study, though. Chiefly that the sample used, though of statistical significance, was not a random population sample and in fact had a bias that was left-leaning. As such, the researchers make clear that this study’s findings cannot be used to conclude one way or the other that there are more LGB people in the United States than has previously been estimated. However, the research does point out why national polls may not yield accurate views of public opinion. That alone raises significant questions for the LGBT community, particularly as it attempts to gain ground in more conservative states.
For instance, a number of polls are now showing that, even in conservative states, support for gay rights is growing. It’s doubtful that the trend is entirely erroneous, but it does beg the question as to just how much is true support and how much is people giving the answers they believe to be socially acceptable.
When campaign groups are trying to gauge support for, say, a ballot measure on legalizing marriage equality, those numbers are important because they might mean the difference between a costly wasted effort and a successful campaign. As such, if this veiled reporting method holds up and is adopted by other research groups we might be on course to see an incredibly valuable and more accurate gauge of public opinion that can help us better shape the fight for equality as we move forward.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.