The Effect of a Supreme Court Decision Regarding Gay Marriage on Social Norms and Personal Attitudes

Published in: Psychological Science, Volume 28, Issue 9 (September 2017), pages 1334-1344. doi: 10.1177/0956797617709594

Posted on RAND.org on January 31, 2018

by Margaret Tankard, Elizabeth Levy Paluck

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We propose that institutions such as the U.S. Supreme Court can lead individuals to update their perceptions of social norms, in contrast to the mixed evidence on whether institutions shape individuals' personal opinions. We studied reactions to the June 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. In a controlled experimental setting, we found that a favorable ruling, when presented as likely, shifted perceived norms and personal attitudes toward increased support for gay marriage and gay people. Next, a five-wave longitudinal time-series study using a sample of 1,063 people found an increase in perceived social norms supporting gay marriage after the ruling but no change in personal attitudes. This pattern was replicated in a separate between-subjects data set. These findings provide the first experimental evidence that an institutional decision can change perceptions of social norms, which have been shown to guide behavior, even when individual opinions are unchanged.

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