Face-to-face conversation can change attitudes toward transgender people, study finds

Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

(Farrah Kazemi; Stanford University)

A roughly 10-minute, face-to-face conversation is enough to change about 1 in 10 voters’ attitudes toward transgender people, according to a new study by two California political science researchers.

The findings, published in the journal Science, offer a template for canvassers looking to more effectively reach out to voters who may have opposing beliefs. The results also serve as vindication for the outreach methods developed by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after a previous study employing the center’s strategies was retracted following allegations that the study’s lead author may have falsified data.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center began developing its canvassing program after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in the state of California -- a turn of events that caught gay rights supporters off guard. Since then, the center’s Leadership Lab has made an effort to go to the areas in L.A. County where voters approved the marriage ban, to speak with residents and develop an effective strategy when talking to them about gay rights. (A federal appeals court ruled Proposition 8 was unconstitutional in 2010.)

Canvassers asked respondents to recall and discuss a time when they themselves were treated unfairly because they were seen as different. This practice, called “analogic perspective taking,” seemed to be very effective -- but the lab’s director, David Fleischer, wanted to see if researchers could gather hard data to show whether or not the method was working.


“All along the way we tried to measure ourselves ... but there’s simply no substitute for having rigorous independent measurement, so that’s why we sought it out,” Fleischer said.

Very little research has been done on these kinds of interventions, experts said.

“Of the hundreds of studies on prejudice reduction conducted in recent decades, only [about] 11% test the causal effect of interventions conducted in the real world,” Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton University, who was not involved with the paper, wrote in a commentary on the study. “Far fewer address prejudice among adults or measure the long-term effects of those interventions.”

The canvassing campaign provided an opportunity to set up a controlled experiment to see how well the methods worked.

Fleischer reached out to Columbia University political science professor Donald Green, who introduced them to Michael LaCour, then a UCLA graduate student. The center’s volunteers would go door-to-door to speak with people, and LaCour would work with the center and collect online survey data.

LaCour and Green’s findings, that gay canvassers could significantly change voter opinions with face-to-face conversations, was greeted with great fanfare in December 2014. The center brought on UC Berkeley graduate students David Broockman and Joshua Kalla to follow up the work by doing a similar study in south Florida. But the pair quickly began to find problems with the research.

“When we were setting about following up ... there were a bunch of things that didn’t look right,” said Broockman, now a Stanford University professor, “so we sort of started to get suspicious.”

The survey response rate was unnaturally high; the error rates were strangely low. And when they went to the vendor that had purportedly administered the online surveys, company representatives said they had never worked with LaCour. (LaCour later admitted that he had failed to pay survey respondents cash compensation, but said that the survey data had already been destroyed in accordance with ethics guidelines.)

“His only reason for being on the premises was to measure us,” Fleischer said. “And the thing he did not do was measure us. When we discovered that was the case, we were stunned.”

That failure to pay participants was a potential indication, Green said in an earlier Los Angeles Times report, that no follow-up survey had ever been performed.

Broockman, Kalla and Peter Aronow of Yale University sent their report to Green, who, faced with their findings, requested in a May 19 letter that Science retract the paper.

“I am deeply embarrassed by this turn of events and apologize to the editors, reviewers, and readers of Science,” he wrote. (LaCour did not agree to the retraction.)

But even as Broockman and Kalla were uncovering the irregularities in the previous study, they were still set to do a similar experiment in the Miami-Dade County area to see whether the canvassing method could shift attitudes toward transgender people.

This time, they were determined that the experiment be done right.

“When I got to know them, I realized the kind of canvassing they do is quite different than the kind of canvassing I was accustomed to seeing,” Broockman said of the LGBT center, likening its method to cognitive behavioral therapy. “What they’re doing is not trying to tell their sob stories and get empathy; what they’re doing is asking the voter to do mental work and think about the experiences they’ve had.”

Around the same time the previous study was published, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed an ordinance protecting transgender people against discrimination in December 2014. SAVE, a south Florida lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organization, asked the Los Angeles LGBT Center to help them perform similar canvassing work -- this time on transgender rights.

Transgender people are at up to 25 times greater risk of abuse, assault and suicide than the general population, the study authors note. And as transgender rights come increasingly into the public eye, advocates fear that this could prompt a backlash against an already marginalized community.

During the south Florida effort, Broockman and Kalla set up an experiment in which 56 canvassers went door-to-door visiting 501 voters. About 255 of them were asked to think of a time when they had felt mistreated for being different -- an exercise in analogic perspective taking. The rest were part of a control group that the canvassers spoke to about recycling. The researchers followed up with online surveys at three days, three weeks, six weeks and three months.

The scientists found that those who were asked to do analogic perspective-taking were significantly more likely to exhibit a higher tolerance toward transgender people than those who were in the control group. The effect, the researchers said, represented an even greater attitude change than the shift in American attitudes between 1998 and 2012 toward gays and lesbians.

“They’ve made their entire process enormously transparent,” Paluck said in an interview, “so that’s one reason to trust in the results. They’re part of a growing number of social scientists who have been responding to concerns about psychology, social science and economics and how un-transparent their results are.”

Unlike the retracted study, which found that gay canvassers were effective at changing voters’ minds, Broockman and Kalla’s paper found that changing people’s minds on transgender rights did not require that the canvasser be transgender as well. That’s good news, Broockman said, because it means that anyone -- either transgender people or their allies -- can do such work effectively.

“In some ways, it’s actually a lot more encouraging than the original,” he said.

Green, who was not involved in the latest research, praised the work.

“Dave Fleischer and his colleagues at the LGBT Center ... suffered a terrible blow when LaCour’s panel surveys turned out to be phony, as the center’s outreach efforts were written off by many as naive,” he wrote in an email. “Now the center has a proper scholarly evaluation of its innovative and important work.”

While the LGBT center’s perspective-taking method seems to be effective, many questions remain, Paluck pointed out.

“This study just showed that it could work; it didn’t show exactly why it worked,” Paluck said. “That would be a great follow-up series of studies — to say, OK, what is the key ingredient of this canvassing conversation?”

Fleischer said the center recently has been visited by several groups interested in applying the canvassing method to a variety of issues, among them gun control, animal welfare and reducing income inequality.

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