The Victim Paradox: How Portrayals of Suffering Affect Attitudes about Gay People and Gay Rights

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Principal investigator:

Seth K. Goldman

University of Massachusetts Amherst



Sample size: 2003

Field period: 12/15/2013-07/22/2014

Do media portrayals of outgroup members suffering from discrimination produce sympathy, thus warming feelings about the outgroup and increasing support for related public policies? Or do such "victim" narratives produce feelings of pity, resulting in subtly more negative perceptions of the outgroup and increased internalized stigma among outgroup members? In this study, I hypothesize that both sets of outcomes are likely. This is what I call the "victim paradox": the narratives most effective at increasing support for policies that reduce outgroup disadvantages also reinforce perceptions of the group as powerless among ingroup and outgroup members alike. To test these hypotheses, I employ two survey experiments--one among heterosexual respondents, and another among LGB respondents--that assess the impact of exposure to narratives about anti-gay bullying on ingroup and outgroup attitudes.

1) Heterosexuals' Sympathy toward the Gay Protagonist: There should be a positive correlation between the amount of suffering portrayed and the amount of sympathy expressed for the protagonist. The victim narrative should produce the most sympathy because it portrays the most suffering, followed by the narrative showing a modest amount of suffering, and, finally, the narrative that does not portray any suffering.

2) Heterosexuals' Favorability toward Gay People: I expect to find the same pattern of effects with regard to outgroup attitudes. If the victim narrative produces the most sympathy, then it should also produce the largest increases in positive feelings about the outgroup.

3) Heterosexuals' Support for Gay Rights Policies: The victim narrative's effects on feelings about the outgroup should, in turn, lead to greater support for public policies benefiting the outgroup.

4) Heterosexuals' Pity toward the Gay People: My theory predicts that the victim narrative will not only produce sympathy—and the benefits that attend to it—but pity as well. The victim narrative, by portraying an outgroup member as incapable and sad, should increase such paternalistic prejudice.

5) Gays' Internalized Stigma: Exposure to situations that reinforce victimhood due to being gay should increase internalized stigma.

Experimental Manipulations
The experiment manipulates the content of a short reading passage about a lesbian teenager who is bullied due to her sexual orientation. The design includes three treatment conditions, plus a no-exposure control: 1) the victim narrative (high suffering/low control); 2) the hero narrative (medium suffering/medium control); 3) the times have changed narrative (low suffering/high control); and 4) a sympathetic control narrative that makes no mention of gays or gay rights.

Among heterosexual respondents, there are four dependent variables: sympathy toward the victim; overall favorability toward gays and lesbians; support for gay rights policies; and pity toward gays and lesbians. Among LGB respondents, the outcome of interest is internalized stigma.