Why It’s Helpful to Talk About Obama’s Gay Marriage “Evolution”

Barack Obama’s changing position on gay-marriage has been the most widely talked about “evolution” since…well….since that one single cell organism evolved into the millions of species we have today. And though the obsession with quantifying the exact level of political calculus underlying the announcement had all the characteristics of beating a dead horse, there was one unintended benefit. All the talk about Obama’s decision making process reinforced the idea that attitudes can change.

Psychology research has repeatedly found that our seemingly mundane beliefs about change are important. These “lay theories” about whether something is malleable can influence almost anything. When people are taught that body weight is malleable they do a better job dealing with dieting setbacks. Similarly, when students believe intelligence is malleable rather than fixed at birth, they persevere more in the fact of difficulty. Still, the question remains — are there societal benefits to believing that views on gay marriage can evolve?

A new study by Rebecca Neel and Janessa Shaprio doesn’t specifically deal with beliefs about sexuality, but it gives a pretty good idea of what the answer is. Neel and Shapiro put white subjects into difficult interracial interactions with black confederates. Through a series of four experiments the researchers discovered that when whites believed racial bias was capable of changing, they engaged in behavior that was more prosocial.

We argue that a previously unexamined factor— beliefs about the malleability of racial bias—guides Whites’ strategies for difficult interracial interactions. We predicted and found that those who believe racial bias is malleable favor learning-oriented strategies such as taking the other person’s perspective and trying to learn why an interaction is challenging, whereas those who believe racial bias is fixed favor performance-oriented strategies such as overcompensating in the interaction and trying to end the interaction as quickly as possible.

Obviously not every in-group out-group interaction is the same, but it seems plausible that the effects in the study would generalize to beliefs about the malleability of sexual attitudes. With the 24/7 barrage of talk about Obama’s visibly malleable beliefs on gay marriage, one would expect that, at least at the margin, people in an uncomfortable gay-straight interactions will now engage in more prosocial, learning-oriented behavior.


Neel, R., & Shapiro, J. (2012). Is Racial Bias Malleable? Whites’ Lay Theories of Racial Bias Predict Divergent Strategies for Interracial Interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0028237

One Response to Why It’s Helpful to Talk About Obama’s Gay Marriage “Evolution”

  1. Pingback: The First Step Toward Being Creative Is Believing That You Can Be Creative - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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