New research provides initial evidence that using the label “straight” to describe heterosexual individuals can promote negative evaluations of gay men — particularly among highly religious people. The findings have been published in The Journal of Sex Research.
Previous research has shown that people associate certain spatial dimensions with morality. In particular, abstract shapes with curved lines were found to be implicitly associated with immorality, while shapes with straight lines were implicitly associated with morality.
Based on those findings, the authors of the current study were interested in whether the association between straightness and moral integrity influenced perceptions of homosexual (non-straight) individuals.
“In the last ten years my colleagues and I have been working on the role of morality in social perception. Recently, we published a work showing that people tend to associate morality-related words (e.g., respect) with straight figures rather than with curved ones and prefer straight images after recalling moral (vs. immoral) events,” explained study author Simona Sacchi, a professor of at the University of Milano-Bicocca.
“Therefore, these prior studies empirically support the hypothesis of a robust association between spatial straightness and the perception of moral integrity. Thus we started to analyze the everyday language that is imbued of expressions in which straightness refers both to morality and the spatial dimension (e.g., rectitude). This proved to be true not only in the European language but also in Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, thus suggesting this relation to be spread in different cultural contexts.”
“Giving a look at the dictionary, straight is defined as continuing in one direction without curving (adv.), being without bend (adj.), being honest and respectable (adj.) and being heterosexual (adj.),” Sacchi said. “For this reason we decided to investigate the possible impact of this association between straightness (related to morality) and heterosexuality on social perception and prejudice towards sexual minorities.”
Across three studies, which included 275 English-speaking and 131 Italian-speaking participants, the researchers found evidence that being exposed to the label “straight” worsened perceptions of gay men among highly religious individuals.
“People should be aware that, on one side, our everyday language (in media, social discourse but also in our jokes) is an expression of how we judge other people and social groups. On the other side, it shapes social perception, spreading and enhancing stereotypes and prejudice,” Sacchi told PsyPost.
“We are certainly conscious of the adverse consequences of openly offensive language and derogatory epithets addressed to minority groups but we are less conscious that our verbal expressions might have negative effects even when positive.”
“We should remember that modern prejudice is often subtle, indirect, invisible to the perpetrator, and revealed more by ingroup favoritism than explicit outgroup derogation,” Sacchi continued. “In contemporary society, ingroup-directed favoritism and accentuated positive feelings, as sympathy and admiration, toward ingroup members could be the ‘modern’ basis for discrimination.”
In the studies, participants were shown fictitious Facebook profiles, which included information such as sexual orientation, relationship status, education, age, and other attributes. After viewing each profile, the participants were asked to report their overall impression of the person it represented.
The researchers found that highly religious participants tended to judge men labeled as “gay” more negatively after first viewing a Facebook profile that labeled another man as “straight” (vs. labeling him as “heterosexual” or not mentioning his sexuality.)
“Although English speakers commonly use the label straight to indicate heterosexual people, the words ‘straight’ and ‘heterosexual’ are not perfectly interchangeable from a socio-psychological perspective. Our research goes in this direction and shows that the label straight target worsens the social judgment about a gay man especially for highly religious participants,” Sacchi explained.
But this was only found among participants who indicated that they often attended their place of worship and held strong religious beliefs.
“In our study, the critical outcome of labeling arose only for highly religious people; for low levels of religiosity, the use of straight instead of heterosexual (or a neutral word) does not impact negatively the perception of the gay man. However, the relation between religiosity, language and sexual prejudice merits greater attention and the role of other individual variables might be taken into account,” Sacchi said.
“This is the first attempt to explore the negative consequences on minority group members of positive labels associated with the majority group. Thus, there are still many open questions. Future studies should explore the underlying mechanisms and factors that are likely to enhance or weaken such an effect. In other words we should answer the questions about ‘when’ and ‘how’ these positive labels have these specific effects on social perception.”
The study, ““If I Am Straight You Are Askew”: Labelling Heterosexuals as Straight Worsen Gay Men’s Perception“, was authored by Simona Sacchi, Marco Brambilla, Federica Spaccatini, Ilaria Giovannelli, Maria Giuseppina Pacilli, and Stefano Pagliaro.