Homophobia is more common in people who have an attraction to the same sex but have been forced to suppress their desires, according to a new study.
The paper, due to be published this month in the Journal of Personality and Psychology is the first to look at the role parenting and sexuality play in the formation of the fear of homosexual people - including things like self-reported anti-gay attitudes, backing of anti-gay policies and implicit hostility towards gay people.
"Individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves," the study's lead author, Netta Weinstein, told ScienceDaily.
"In many cases these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward," said co-author Prof Richard Ryan, from the University of Rochester.
Researchers conducted four different experiments around the US and Germany, each involving about 160 university students. Evidence suggested for the first time that fear, anxiety and aversion that some people have towards gay people could grow out of their same suppressed desires.
"To explore the participants explicit and implicit sexual attraction the researchers measured the discrepancies between what people say about their sexual orientation and how they react during a split second timed task," ScienceDaily reported.
Participants were shown words on a screen and asked to label them as "gay" or "straight". Before each of the 50 trials, participants were subliminally primed with either the word "me" or "others" flashed on the screen for 35 milliseconds. They were then shown the words "gay", "straight" "homosexual" and "heterosexual" as well as pictures of straight and gay couples, while the computer tracked their response times.
"A faster association of 'me' with 'gay' and a slower association of 'me' with 'straight' indicated an implicit gay orientation," ScienceDaily reported.
Another experiment requiring subjects to browse at same sex or opposite sex photos offered more insight in to orientation.
They were then asked to fill in questionnaires about the type of parenting they experienced growing up, answering yes or no to questions like "I felt controlled or pressured in certain ways" and "It would be upsetting for my mum if she found out I was a lesbian."
The participants' level of homophobia was based on a series of questions and word completion tasks that tracked how aggressive people became after being exposed to the word "gay" for just a few milliseconds.
"In a predominately heterosexual society, 'know thyself' can be a challenge for many gay individuals. But in controlling and homophobic homes embracing a minority sexual orientation can be terrifying," said Ms Weinstein, from the University of Essex.
Findings may offer some clue in to the root of hate crimes as it's been suggested that some gay related attackers feel the same level of threat from their victim. People in denial about their sexual orientation may lash out because gay targets stir up these internal conflicts, the authors write.
"This study shows that if you are feeling that kind of visceral reaction to an out-group, ask yourself why?" said Prof Ryan.
"Those intense feelings should serve as a call to self-reflection."
- HERALD ONLINE
Follow Life & Style Editor Nicky Park on Twitter