Yale Cultural Cognition Project considers gay and lesbian parenting

by on May 13, 2010  •  In Uncategorized

by Nancy Polikoff

Among opponents of gay and lesbian adoption who base their opposition on the welfare of children, only 22% say they would change their mind if shown convincing empirical evidence that children raised by gay and lesbian couples are just as likely to be healthy and well-adjusted as children raised by heterosexual couples. This is just one statistic in the report recently released by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.

Cultural cognition, according to the project's website, refers to "the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities." The project's objective is "to identify processes of democratic decisionmaking by which society can resolve culturally grounded differences in belief in a manner that is both congenial to persons of diverse cultural outlooks and consistent with sound public policymaking."

The project's first report on gay and lesbian parenting describes the relationship between respondents' cultural values and their factual belief about the welfare of children raised by gay and lesbian parents. The next phase of the project is assessing "how cultural values influence receptivity to sound information on gay and lesbian parenting." In the final phase, the project will explore what means of communication will make it possible for culturally diverse people to accept the best empirical information on the welfare of children of gay and lesbian parents. The goal of the researchers (who include Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of the recently released Red Families v. Blue Families) is to "create conditions in which individuals are disposed to give empirical data a fair appraisal," thereby advancing "social justice and public welfare."

Put more simply, the project is trying to figure out how to get people to openmindedly consider empirical information about the children of gay and lesbian parents. As the statistic with which I opened this post demonstrates, they have their work cut out for themselves. They do conclude in this report, however, that enough people to effect public policy really do care about child welfare and really do want to credit the best research in the area. The researchers believe that people will be open-minded when they receive information in a way that is compatible with their defining values; by stage three of their project, they hope to identify the methods most like to achieve their goal.

Meanwhile, this first report has some sobering data. My nominee for most disturbing statistic: 81% of respondents strongly agree, agree, or mildly agree that "we should do everything we can to encourage the ideal of children being raised by their biological parents." Even the most strident right-wing "marriage promotion" ideologues have been forced to articulate their support for not all marriages, but for healthy marriages. Yet somehow the public at large (as represented in this study) overwhelmingly imagines, without qualification, that it is ideal for children to be raised with their biological parents.

There's majority support for allowing lesbians and gay men to adopt and be foster parents; but almost the same majority agrees that "the law should encourage that children be raised by heterosexual couples wherever possible." 48% agree that "gay parenting undermines the family in our society;" 45% agree that "because chldren raised by homosexual couples are taught that homosexuality is morally acceptable, they will have trouble learning right from wrong in other areas of life as well;" and, shockingly, 33% believe that children raised by gay or lesbian parents are more likely to be sexually molested than other children. There's much more here, and so I encourage readers to check out the report itself.

The report points out strong dissensus on these issues. It characterizes the dissensus as abnormal because most people cluster not in the middle (mildly agree/mildly disagree) but at the extremes. Indeed, the vast majority of questions have a majority of respondents either strongly agreeing or strongly disagreeing. The report correlates various characteristics to the positions of the repsondents. I found more than a glimmer of hope in its conclusion about age. "If individuals were to stay fixed in their values, practices, and beliefs, then we would expect there to be a sugnificant rise in support for gay and lesbian parenting over the next decade, as the generation most adamantly opposed to and concerned about it ages out of the population."

Finally, I began this post with the statistic on the low percentage (22%) of opponents of gay and lesbian adoption who base their opposition on child welfare but are not likely to be swayed by facts about child welfare to the contrary. Interestingly, of supporters of gay and lesbian adoption, 50% say they would change their view if shown child welfare evidence to the contrary. To a large extent, the report lumps these groups together to show that people overstate the extent to which they base their position on the real consequences to children of being raised by same-sex couples. I actually read it differently. I see the difference in these numbers as demonstrating that people who are open-minded about families and child well-being think in terms that are both more nuanced and more realistic than those who hold rigid beliefs about the superiority of the married, one-mother/one-father family form. It's no accident that the right-wing groups like Family Research Council and Alliance Defense Fund make extreme and simplistic pronouncements about families, while the Council on Contemporary Families qualifies their statements out of respect for the complex nature of family life and child development. The right chooses sound bites; the left chooses sound policy.

Anyway, the report is a great read, and has much more here than I can summarize. (Check out the super majority support for laws ending housing and employment discrimination, 63% support for civil unions, and 45% support for marriage; also there's significantly more distaste for visibily gay male couples than visibly lesbian couples).

I wish the project all the success in the world. The researchers believe they can reach enough people who are open to changing their minds and that this will make a difference in public policy. I hope they're right.

5 Responses to Yale Cultural Cognition Project considers gay and lesbian parenting

  1. TomTallis May 14, 2010 at 1:22 AM

    I notice that your summary uses the words “homosexual couples.” A recent poll regarding DADT asked its question two ways, one using “gays and lesbians,” and the other using “homosexuals.” The group that was asked about “homosexuals” serving, while in favor, was in favor by a considerably lower margin than the group which was asked about “gays and lesbians.” It’s possible to infer from this small bit of evidence that the term “homosexual” may, in fact, be pejorative and the term “gays and lesbians” might lead to better results than reported.

  2. Nancy Polikoff May 14, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    It’s not my term; it’s the term in the report. I don’t use “homosexual couples” when I write but rather “same-sex couples,” or I use the terms “gay” or “lesbian.” You might see if you can contact the researchers through the Cultural Cognition Project website and make your suggestion to them.

  3. Ken Clark May 14, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    I sent them an email this evening so no one will likely see it until Monday. I like your blog.

  4. TomTallis May 17, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    I received a response from Yale over the weekend.

    “You are undoubtedly right that the wording of questions is very important. Even if the underlying concepts appear to be identical, minor changes in wording can make a big difference. One thing that may explain the variation is some intuition that individuals have about the perspective of the person asking the question, something researchers call “response bias”. Response bias is pervasive — basically participants in studies tend to say what they think the person conducting the study would like them to say. The terms “gay and lesbian” and “homosexual” are employed by different types of people who hold different view about gender dynamics, gay rights, and so on. In responding to each question, then, participants are, in part, adapting their answer to the voice in which the question is framed. In our study, we have worded questions in a number of different ways, in hopes that the variety of wordings we use will capture the underlying attitude of the respondent.

    “That said, I take your point about the potentially offensive or even inflamatory quality of the term “homosexual”. We do need to be careful about how we frame our reports. I think that, perhaps, we were unconsciously attempting to appeal to people of diverse perspectives, and thus sometimes adopt the diverse terms that they typically employ. But it might, as you suggest, be triggering them to become homophobic. Many thanks for bringing this to our attention.”

    Mission accomplished!

  5. Nancy Polikoff May 17, 2010 at 11:50 PM

    Wow! That is such a great response. Congratulations on making the effort and having it pay off.

Leave a Reply to Nancy Polikoff Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *