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How to change minds about same-sex marriage

Shanté Wolfe, left, and Tori Sisson, right, laugh with each other near the Montgomery County Courthouse on Feb. 8  in Montgomery, Ala. Wolfe and Sisson camped out all night  Sunday to be the first couple to marry in Montgomery on Monday morning. (Brynn Anderson/AP)
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Responding to the retracted LaCour and Green study, Eitan Hersh noted in this space that the findings notably contradicted a significant body of research on get-out-the-vote canvassing. That research has consistently found that the most effective campaigners are like the target population: either from the same neighborhood, or sharing racial or ethnic identity. Hersh concludes that probably the best canvassers on behalf of same-sex marriage would not be LGBT canvassers but actually canvassers who share an identity with their targets. This is precisely what we found in 15 experiments over the past five years as part of a book manuscript under contract with Yale University Press, tentatively titled “Listen, We Need to Talk.”

Want to convince religious individuals to support same-sex marriage? Reach out to them with a supportive statement from a religious leader, as we show here. We conducted a randomized experiment in 2012 targeting religious and secular individuals, using a statement either attributed to a citizen or a reverend. Religious individuals exposed to the quotation attributed to a reverend were 11 percentage points more likely to say that they supported same-sex marriage, and 10  percentage points more likely to say that they approved of gay men and lesbians being parents.

Want to convince sports fans? Reach out to them by highlighting support from professional athletes or other fans sharing that identity, as we did in a paper presented in Chicago last month. In a randomized experiment conducted in Wisconsin last fall, we found that support for same-sex marriage was dramatically increased if a statement of support came from Packers Hall-of-Famer LeRoy Butler rather than from entertainer Jay-Z. Support among Packers fans who were shown a statement of support from Butler was 14 percentage points higher than fans shown the same statement attributed to Jay-Z. (Notably, Butler’s support didn’t affect non-fans). In a similar experiment conducted two years ago when the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens were in the Super Bowl, we found that exposing football fans to a statement of support from Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo increased support for gay marriage by more than 10 percentage points compared to the same statement attributed to an anonymous source.

Want to convince African Americans? Use African American canvassers and throw in a statement of support from an African American leader (like President  Obama), as we showed here. In July 2012, when non-black callers from Georgia Equality called African Americans in the Atlanta area and asked whether  they supported same-sex marriage, only about 28 percent said yes. In contrast, more than 41 percent of blacks contacted by black callers using a script that noted Obama’s support said yes.

Last week, Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage. Days before the vote, an elderly Irish couple, Brighid and Paddy Whyte, married 50 years this coming September, posted a video on YouTube urging a yes vote. They reached out to their fellow Irish as Catholics and as people who wanted to make the world a better place for their grandchildren. The video went viral, reportedly inspiring many conversations — and was a perfect example of the power of using in-group messengers. The strategy used by supporters in Ireland was modeled on work in the United States by Freedom to Marry, who based their successful campaigns in 2012 on internal research on how to connect with people and change their minds.

In contrast, we’ve found that using callers who identify themselves as lesbian or gay to solicit donations to an LGBT rights organization works less effectively than using callers who are either straight or don’t come out.

LaCour’s data suggested that LGBT canvassers were the best at making long-term changes in attitude. That still may be true; our research only asks for attitudes during one telephone call or face-to-face interaction. We look forward to seeing more research in this area, and are willing to be proven wrong. But for now, political science theory and research suggests that shared identities are more important.

Brian F. Harrison, PhD, is visiting fellow at Yale University’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies.  Melissa R. Michelson, PhD, is professor of political science at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif.