UPDATE (May 20, 2015): One of the two studies used in this essay appears to have been fraudulent. According to Dylan Matthews, writing for Vox,
The findings were too miraculous, as it turns out. Green has retracted the study, and asked the journal Science to do the same. LaCour, it turned out, faked the data.
That said, the other study quoted, Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions (PDF) by Sarah K. Cowan of New York University, which suggests that those who oppose abortion will not hear of the abortions of their friends, leading them to believe more firmly in their previously held opinions, has not been found either inaccurate or fraudulent.
Just about every place you can think of covered the same-sex marriage study: This American Life, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Science Friday, Bloomberg Politics, Huffington Post, and, of course, me at Vox. We all got it wrong.
The November 2014 issue of Sociological Science
included Secrets and Misperceptions: The Creation of Self-Fulfilling Illusions (PDF)
by Sarah K. Cowan of New York University. In her study, Cowan examined who hears two different types of secrets: one that is highly stigmatized, abortion, and one that is less stigmatized, miscarriage.
Unsurprisingly, people who are sympathetic to abortion rights are more likely to hear secrets about friends or family members who have had one. Adamant forced birthers are less likely to hear the secrets others keep about their abortions. Both groups are likely to hear secrets about miscarriage. Although it is by far the more common medical procedure, only half of survey's respondents had heard about someone's abortion, while over three-quarters had heard about someone's miscarriage.
As we become more polarized, our social networks have become more insular and more homogenized, meaning we rarely hear opposing views. This is particularly evident with the highly stigmatized secret of abortion. Among pro-choice participants in the study, 60 percent reported knowing about someone's abortion but only 40 percent of the forced birthers knew anyone who had an abortion. Eighty percent of both groups had heard of someone who had had a miscarriage.
This allows the forced birthers to exist in a separate reality, unaware of the women around them who have had abortions but who fear disapproval and so remain silent. It reinforces the stigma and the illusion of the type of woman and her reasons for aborting a pregnancy. Exposure to women who have had abortions may not cause those who oppose abortion to become more liberal, but it would influence them. As Cowan's explains below the fold, "When there is silence rather than discussion, individuals cannot influence each other, and attitudes remain stable."
I shift the focus to hearing secrets, and this reveals that selective disclosure of secrets permits a self-fulfilling illusion; those who are opposed to a given secret are less likely to hear of it even if it exists in their social vicinity. They then do not have to face the truth about those they know and confront their own beliefs about the secret and those implicated in it. Had they, they might have engaged in a process of social influence and changed their beliefs, but when secrets are kept from them, they do not have that opportunity. Absent that opportunity, stasis will likely prevail.
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The Cowan study looked at how we kept or revealed secrets to family or friends, and how that impacted any opportunity for change. The preliminary results of an exciting new study are showing that exposure to strangers who reveal their abortions can change minds as well.
According to Bloomberg Politics, in 1996, Gallup reported that only 27 percent of Americans supported marriage equality. By May of last year, that figure had increased to 55 percent.
The stories we tell about how this happened usually minimize politicians and campaigns and prefer the logic of the natural cycle: People realize they know personally gays and lesbians, grow comfortable around them, accept their political demands in human terms, creating an environment where more people feel comfortable coming out.
This theory was actually put to the test in a study that was just published by Science Magazine. (Dropbox pdf requires free subscription to Science Magazine. A paper summarizing the findings was prepared by the study's authors for presentation to the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, IL, April 4-7, 2014. A free pdf of that can be found here.)
The study showed that when residents discussed marriage equality with a canvasser who revealed his/her LGBT nature, they tended to become more supportive of marriage equality, and not just for the short term, but for the full year covered by the study. Other residents, who discussed the issue with canvassers who did not come out to the residents, showed an increase in support that quickly dissipated. And those who shared the home with the resident also showed an increase in support for marriage equality if the resident had spoken with a LGBT canvasser.
The research group then teamed with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles to see if their methods could be applied to abortion. This time they used women who had had abortions to canvass those residents who said they were against abortion access.
The group’s most recent wave of canvassers increased support for safe and legal abortion by 10 percent. While 39 percent of voters said they agreed with abortion access in initial surveys, after volunteers visited their doors, 49.8 percent agreed. While all volunteers changed minds, women who previously had abortions and chose to tell voters about their experiences achieved the most lasting impact.
The preliminary results are very exciting. They show that support for abortion rights increase in people who speak with women who have had abortions, that the support is transmitted to other members of the household, and that the support does not diminish quickly.
The study, The Best Way To Change Minds On Abortion is To Tell Someone You Had One: Evidence From Six Longitudinal Field Experiments, has not been published yet, but the abstract is available on the website of Michael LaCour and includes this:
When the Supreme Court struck down the buffer zone for abortion clinics, every group saw their abortion views become more conservative -- all except one. Those who had had a conversation about abortion weeks earlier with a woman who disclosed she had an abortion. This finding suggests that discussion at the doorstep affected the way in which people subsequently received and interpreted the news. The results have profound implications for understanding the magnitude and channels of opinion change in the wake of persuasive communication and prominent news events.
Cowan has also discussed further studies and the impact that knowing who has had an abortion might have on future decisions that women will continue to make:
"I don't have data, but I can imagine that a woman who finds herself pregnant when she doesn't want to be approaches that pregnancy differently when she knows that her friend, or her cousin, or her aunt has had an abortion," Cowan said. "That’s my speculation. I would love to have more information on that."
The forced birthers have used the term, "right to life," to suggest that women who have abortions are somehow anti-life or flat-out killers, guilty of no less than feticide. They do this not only to make it politically acceptable for politicians to vote for abortion restrictions, but also to create and enforce an abortion stigma. The only way to fight back against the stigma is to come out of the closet and reveal your decision to end a pregnancy. We can and should learn from the experience of the LGBT community and show our friends and our family members that we are not monsters, that we are women—responsible women—who for a multitude of reasons, decided that a pregnancy needed to end.
We may not change any minds, but we should cause others to consider the very real issues that women face when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
I hope that Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio was sincere when he wrote of his change of position on abortion. If he is, it provides more evidence that talking about abortions can change minds:
I have sat with women from Ohio and across the nation and heard them talk about their varying experiences: abusive relationships, financial hardship, health scares, rape and incest. There are endless stories about women in troubling situations — the woman who became pregnant and has a violent spouse; the woman who lost her job and is unable to afford another child; or the underage girl worried she’ll be thrown out of her house if she reveals her pregnancy.
These women gave me a better understanding of how complex and difficult certain situations can become. And while there are people of good conscience on both sides of this argument, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: the heavy hand of government must not make this decision for women and families.