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Disgust, Not Fear, Drives Homophobia

NEW ORLEANS -- Homophobia is not an actual phobia, according to three University of Arkansas psychologists. In a recent study, these researchers showed that homophobia originates not out of fear or anxiety -- as true phobias do -- but from feelings of disgust.

The UA researchers also found close associations between homophobic tendencies and concerns about contamination as well as conservative views about sexuality in general. Their findings suggest a social, attitudinal basis for homophobia rather than a psychopathological one, as the term itself implies.

"If you can identify the underlying emotions of certain attitudes and behaviors, you can better understand how those attitudes formed," explained Bunmi Olatunji, a UA doctoral student and lead author of the study. "That has implications for treatment, but it also enables you to consider a condition in the proper context. In this case, homophobia shouldn't be pathologized."

With the help of various graduate students, UA professor of psychology Jeffrey Lohr has spent the past several years attempting to identify the emotional mediators behind a variety of phobias, including blood injection/injury phobias and spider or insect phobias.

The study on homophobia -- conducted by Olatunji and doctoral student Suzanne Meunier -- represents the latest chapter in that program of research. On Sunday, June 9, Olatunji will present the findings of their study at the American Psychological Society convention in New Orleans.

To assess the emotional constructs behind homophobia, the UA researchers asked 138 participants to complete a series of surveys. These included the Index of Attitudes toward Homosexuals (IAH), the Sexual Attitude Scale, the Disgust Emotion Scale, the Padua Inventory -- which assesses contamination obsessions -- and three questionnaires that measured levels of fear and anxiety.

Statistical analysis of the results showed a negative correlation between attitudes about homosexuals and measures of fear or anxiety. However, results from the Index of Attitudes toward Homosexuals was positively correlated with results from the Sexual Attitude Scale, the Disgust Emotion Scale and the Padua Inventory. In other words, subjects who showed homophobic tendencies on the IAH also displayed conservative sexual attitudes, elevated levels of disgust and dread of contamination.

"We included the Padua Inventory because fear of contamination clarifies the type of disgust that people are feeling. Without information about contamination fears, you could assume that homophobic people were just disgusted by the abnormality of the homosexual lifestyle," Olatunji said. "But this tells us there's a perception of contagion that feeds into homophobia."

The purpose of identifying such specific emotional components is not just to quibble with use of the term "homophobia" but to understand the origin and nature of the condition. For example, fear and disgust tend to arise out of different circumstances or contexts, and they manifest in very different ways.

Fear causes immediate physiological arousal, leading to elevated respiration and heart rate, and it inspires a flight reaction. Disgust, however, triggers a bi-phasic physiological reaction, with heart rate and respiration initially rising but plummeting shortly thereafter. While fear causes a "get me away from that" reaction, disgust manifests as "get that away from me." These different emotional reactions can lead to very different behaviors, according to Lohr.

"The same emotions that mediate attitude can mediate behavior," he said. "If fear mediates avoidance, other emotions may mediate attack. That distinction becomes very important when what a person intends to avoid or attack is not an animal or an inanimate object, but another human being."

Additionally, different emotional constructs require different approaches to treatment. Clinical psychologists often treat true phobias by forcing patients to confront their fears. Flooding -- or prolonged, repeated exposure to the feared stimulus -- can weaken the fear response and allow people to practice controlling their reactions. But such a procedure may not be effective in eliminating disgust and, furthermore, would be inappropriate if the object of that disgust is another person.

Lohr suspects that the type of disgust associated with homophobia arises from social conditions rather than psychological ones -- that it represents a prejudicial attitude more akin to racism than to phobia. If that's the case, any attempt to treat or reduce homophobia would have to be conducted through a process of attitude reformation, which could occur in a social context such as homes or schools rather than in a clinical setting.

"If contempt and disgust drive homophobia, then it seems more of a moral or social problem than a psychopathological one," Lohr said. "If we start to consider negative attitudes pathological -- implying that there's something medically wrong with prejudiced people, that they're somehow sick with their own attitudes -- that seems to me misguided."

---American Psychological Society

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