The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Misleading Headlines (Homophobia Edition)

May 29, 2005

Some time ago I joined an evolutionary-psychology listserv. Some international-relations scholars have started to draw on evolutionary psychology, and I thought reading the listserv might be one way of educating myself about the subfield. It turns out that a lot of the traffic involves posting articles that are related to evolutionary psychology in one way or another. Today. someone posted “Study: Homophobia hard wired by evolution” from

My initial reaction was along the lines of, “oh, wonderful. Some study arguing that gay people don’t reproduce, thus discouraging homosexuality increase group fitness, and therefore anti-gay feelings are cognitively hard-wired” (evolutionary psychology, when practiced poorly, is full of these kinds of just-so stories, often with a game-theoretic model thrown in for good measure).

Turns out I was wrong. The error is more basic than that:

Anti-gay prejudice could be a natural response to a perceived sense of danger, according to a new study, and part of an evolutionary trait that is hard wired into human brains.
According to a US study, published in the May issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, discrimination could be an after effect of the ancestral need to protect a group from danger…. Researchers from Arizona State University studied a group of students and marked their reaction to different minorities, including gay men, racially diverse groups and religious believers…. They say the responses show that, as group living animals, our ancestors learned to distrust outsiders because of the threat they held over their fellow humans.

“By nature, people are group-living animals — a strategy that enhances individual survival and leads to what we might call a ‘tribal psychology’,” says Steven Neuberg,” ASU professor of social psychology, who authored the study with doctoral student Catherine Cottrell.

“It was adaptive for our ancestors to be attuned to those outside the group who posed threats such as to physical security, health or economic resources, and to respond to these different kinds of threats in ways tailored to have a good chance of reducing them.”

The study revealed that key emotions were targeted at different minority groups, with gay men likely to elicit feelings of disgust.

Now, I don’t know if the problem is with the report or with the study itself, but this is simply another set of experiments purporting to show that human beings display in-group bias and tend to distrust members of out-groups. There’s a growing body of evidence to support this idea, which is often credited to early work in “Social Identity Theory (SIT).

Whether or not homophobia is hardwired is an entirely different matter, one that concerns how plastic (socially constructed and hence malleable) human conceptions of “self” and “other” are. My (informed) guess is that homophobia is one of these cases; in societies, communities, or other social groupings in which homosexuality is broadly accepted – and open gays and lesbians are not segmented into discrete subcultures – being gay simply wouldn’t trigger many people’s “out-group hostility.”

This distinction is actually kind of important for international relations. For example, nationalism may derive its political power from the way it piggy-backs on in-group bias, and particularly on mechanisms that cause people to favor those they perceive as members of the same kin group. How plastic national identity is, however, has significant implications for attempts to overcome nationalism as a source of political conflict and as an important locus for collective mobilization, non?

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.