Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Do ask, do tell

September 1st, 2011

Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide on Homosexual Conduct Policy. ©2001, United States Army.In three weeks, the United States military will officially end the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has prevented openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving — or at least from disclosing any non-heterosexual orientation or speaking about non-heterosexual relationships while they remained in the armed forces.

(Yes, this blog is still about psychology, not politics. Hold your equines.)

This isn’t news. The repeal was signed into law last December. And anyway, I’m Canadian. Why take notice of this?

Because somebody finally tested the premise behind the policy.

The policy was originally put into place because it was believed that “military service by those who have demonstrated a propensity to engage in homosexual acts creates an unacceptable risk to morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion”. Now a new study has discovered that this might not have been true.

Benjamin Everly, Margaret Shih and Geoffrey Ho asked male university students to work with another study participant on a task. Before doing so, each student filled out an information sheet about himself, then received a similar sheet with information about his partner (a gay man who was actually part of the research team).

The “partner’s” info sheet included some details stereotypically associated with being gay (for example, majoring in interior design). However, half the students were told that their partner had a boyfriend, while the other half were just told that he was in a relationship. Would knowing their partner’s sexual orientation make any difference?

It did. Participants told that their partner was gay did significantly better on a math test than those who didn’t know their partner’s orientation. They also did noticeably better when working together with the partner to shoot targets in a Wii game.

Dignity & Respect: A Training Guide on Homosexual Conduct Policy. ©2001, United States Army.As the researchers wrote, “These results suggest that not knowing the identity of one’s interaction partner may be more harmful to performance than knowing the identity—even a stigmatized identity—of one’s interaction partner.”

The reason isn’t clear. It might be that wondering about a partner’s orientation distracts people from performing their tasks well. Or maybe the partner’s openness made him more likeable, which improved performance.

Obviously, the conclusions are limited. Only male students were involved, and the interactions were for a short period of time. Still, previous beliefs would have predicted that these students would do worse if they knew they were working with a gay man. Instead, they did better.

I’ve mentioned the importance of visibility in reducing prejudice before, but this is the first research I’ve seen that suggests that openness/self-disclosure/visibility/coming out might lead to better performance among the “out” individual’s colleagues.

I won’t tell you, or anyone, to come out for that reason. Nobody should be quite that selfless. But it’s good to know that coming out can have benefits beyond improving the mental health of those of us doing it. Let’s share the wealth.

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