Opponents of Gay Marriage Think Their Own Union Is Unshakable

same-sex marriage
Same-sex marriage remains a divisive political issue. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Opponents of same-sex marriage worry that extending the institution's rights to gay people will harm heterosexual marriages. But a new study suggests that no one really believes their own relationships are at risk — only other people's.

The study is a demonstration of the "third-person perception," a common psychological bias in which people are convinced that others are much more influenced by outside sources such as media and advertising than they themselves are. In the realm of same-sex marriage, people who strongly value authority and tradition were the most likely to demonstrate this third-person effect.

The study idea came about during the height of the public gay marriage debate several years ago, said study researcher Matthew Winslow, a psychologist at Eastern Kentucky University. Opponents of same-sex marriage kept citing the dangers of such unions, Winslow said. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, for example, said in 2005 that same-sex marriage would "undermine the traditional relationship between men and women." [10 Wedding Traditions from Around the World]

To Winslow, it seemed unlikely that Dobson was including his own marriage in statements like this.

"It just dawned on me, most of the people who were really vehemently against gay marriage were not likely to say they were worried about their own marriages, but they talked about how if we allowed gay marriage it was going to be bad for society in general," Winslow told LiveScience.

Perceiving other people

Suspecting that the third-party perception might be behind this line of argument, Winslow and his colleagues surveyed 120 straight, unmarried undergraduates about their support for same-sex marriage as well as their beliefs about how the legalization of marriage between gay individuals would affect their own relationships and the relationships of others. The students also answered questions about their political persuasion and their attitudes toward authority.

The students were young, putting them in the demographic that is more supportive of same-sex marriage. Indeed, they were generally accepting, with more than half falling on the "supportive" end of the scale measuring attitudes toward gay marriage. (In 2011, a majority of Americans backed same-sex marriage legalization for the first time. These students were questioned several years earlier, however.)

Nevertheless, even in this supportive group, the third-person perception reared its head.

"People were not really worried about it affecting their own marriage at all," Winslow said. "The scores on that measure were really low."

As a relatively accepting group, the students weren't overly concerned that gay marriage would affect straight relationships. But importantly, they did rate the likelihood of those effects significantly higher for other people than they did for themselves.

Personality and perceptions

The group most likely to see itself as impervious and others as vulnerable was composed of people with a personality trait called right-wing authoritarianism. People with this trait strongly value tradition and authority, and dislike people not in their own social group.

Right-wing authoritarians' perceptions of themselves as strong and others as weak might help explain this group's strong opposition to gay marriage, Winslow said. But the study, published April 10 in the journal Social Psychology, also highlights that everybody judges themselves as a little bit better than the next guy.

"If everyone believes that other people are more affected than they are, that's just not logical," said Winslow, who suggested that focusing on putting yourself in others' shoes might help banish this bias. "If you believe you are not going to be affected by [same-sex marriage], just recognize that probably other people believe the same way, so the good news is that probably people aren't going to be affected by it that much."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.