Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Marriage Changed Perception of Norms, Despite Stable Personal Beliefs

Posted on September 23, 2017

An individual’s understanding of others’ common, accepted opinions and behaviors is called perceived social norms. These perceived social norms have previously been researched and it has been shown that they have a very powerful effect on us, according to Margaret Tankard, associate behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation.

According to Tankard, there are “many examples of cases where people might go along with what others are doing even if they personally are a little more hesitant, or less supportive of what the crowd or the group is doing,” and this is true whether an opinion is actually held in a group (social norm), or people wrongfully believe it’s commonly held (perceived social norm).

However, when studying the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, Tankard could only partially replicate these earlier findings on perceived social norms: In an initial study, both perceived norms and personal attitudes towards same-sex marriage shifted towards more acceptance when participants were informed that the Supreme Court will probably rule in favor of gay marriage. In a second study, conducted over the weeks before and after the actual Court’s ruling, Tankard observed that only peoples’ perceived norms towards gay marriage shifted, while their personal beliefs or opinions remained unchanged. While people updated their understanding of the social climate in response to the nation’s highest court’s decision, they did not reliably change their personal outlook accordingly.

Tankard explains this rather confusing finding by pointing out that “people’s personal opinions are wrapped up in other views that they may have,” for example religious beliefs. “There’s a lot holding opinions in place that make them a little bit less readily altered,” Tankard concludes. Additionally, it has been previously found that perceived norms can shift personal attitudes over time – institutional decisions in particular have been found to reinforce the idea that society’s norms are trending in a certain direction and thereby indicate to many people that this norm will be viewed favorably in the future.

Tankard’s desire to study the cultural attitude shifts regarding same-sex marriage were sparked by the US Supreme Court’s ruling: “I think we’re at a time when there’s a lot of momentum and change happening on this issue, and we wanted to capture a small piece of how that change happens.”

Category(s):LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) Issues

Source material from Association For Psychological Science