People who really hate gay men and women – also known as homophobes – are often attracted to members of the same sex, say scientists. Their new research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that homophobes develop such anti-gay attitudes after repressing their own homosexual desires.
“Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves,” explains Netta Weinstein, the study’s lead author. “In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward,” says co-author Richard Ryan.
The researchers explored the discrepancies between what people say about their sexual orientation and their implicit sexual attraction using a reaction-time test. For the implicit measure, students had to categorize words and pictures flashed onto a computer screen into “gay” or “straight” groups. Words included “gay,” “straight,” “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” while the pictures showed straight and gay couples. Before each trial, participants were primed with the word “me” or “others” that appeared momentarily on the computer screen. According to the researchers, a quicker reaction time for “me” and “gay,” and a slower association of “me” with “straight” would indicate an implicit gay orientation.
They also answered questions about the type of parenting they experienced growing up, from authoritarian to democratic, and filled out questionnaires to assess their homophobia.
In addition to showing that homophobic participants were often attracted to members of the same sex, the findings pointed out that homophobic attitudes were most common in those who had been raised by authoritarian parents. The researchers claim that these individuals risk losing the love and approval of their parents if they admit to same sex attractions, so many people deny or repress that part of them.
“This study shows that if you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself, ‘Why?’” said co-author Richard Ryan. “Those intense emotions should serve as a call to self-reflection.”
Weinstein, N., Ryan, W., DeHaan, C., Przybylski, A., Legate, N., & Ryan, R. (2012). Parental autonomy support and discrepancies between implicit and explicit sexual identities: Dynamics of self-acceptance and defense. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (4), 815-832 DOI: 10.1037/a0026854