Words and opinions

« previous post | next post »

It's a commonplace observation that survey results depend on how questions are worded.  But I don't think I've ever seen a larger effect of synonym-substitution than the one reported by a recent CBS News/New York Times poll about the U.S. military's DADT ("Don't Ask Don't Tell") policy.

Question: Do you favor or oppose ___ serving in the military?

"Homosexuals" "Gay Men & Lesbians"
Strongly Favor 34% 51%
Somewhat Favor 25% 19%
Somewhat Oppose 10% 7%
Strongly Oppose 19% 12%

On the face of it, the two wordings of the question seem to refer to exactly the same set of circumstances. But do they? Do (many) people these days think, for example, that "gay men and lesbians" refers to sexual orientation, while "homosexuals" refers to sexual practices? Or is this large difference in the distribution of opinions purely a question of connotation?

A similarly striking effect was seen in responses to the question "Do you favor or oppose ___ being allowed to serve openly?" Changing the description from "homosexuals" to "gay men and lesbians" swung opinion in favor from 44% to 58%, and opinion in opposition from 42% to 28%:

"Homosexuals" "Gay Men & Lesbians"
Favor 44% 58%
Oppose 42% 28%

According to the (rather skimpy) details provided,

This poll was conducted among a random sample of 1,084 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone February 5-10, 2010. Phone numbers were dialed from random digit dial samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points.

No breakdown by sex or age is given.

A cynical commenter at TPM suggested the control experiment of asking people if they favor  "heterosexuals" serving openly in the military.

One of the classic  discussions of such effects is Tom Smith, "That Which We Call Welfare by Any Other Name Would Smell Sweeter: An Analysis of the Impact of Question Wording on Response Patterns", The Public Opinion Quarterly 51(1) 1987:

A recent experiment on the General Social Survey (GSS) comparing three different versions of spending priorities scales revealed systematic differences by question form and some large differences between particular referents used. The largest observed difference in support for spending was between the traditional category "welfare" and the two variant forms "assistance for the poor" and "caring for the poor." Two of the three forms used in the 1984 experiment (excluding "caring") were again employed on the 1985 survey and again showed a large effect. When we compared these results to other surveys that (1) employed some type of program priority question and (2) inquired about "welfare" (or some variation that used this term) and about" the poor," "the unemployed," or "food stamps"( in one variation or another), we found that the effects were large, similar in magnitude, and persistent across time and survey organization. As Table 1 shows, on average support for more assistance for the poor is 39 percentage points higher than for welfare. Similarly, support for the unemployed always exceeds support for welfare (averaging 12 percentage points), although the margin is somewhat variable. Only support for food stamps is as low or lower than support for welfare.

But the denotations of "welfare" and "caring for the poor" are arguably different — one is a bureaucracy, and the other is a moral obligation.

[Update — Differences of this general kind have been noted, and to some extent studied, since the 1940s.   There are a number of obvious categories of explanation, including (1) different actual denotations of the words and phrases used, at least among the people surveyed,  (2) evocation of differently-evaluated frames by the metaphorical associations of words and phrases, (3) simple positive vs. negative connotations or associations of particular words or phrases, independent of any difference in denotation or in metaphorical frame.

The empirical studies that I've seen don't seem to distinguish these different types of effects very carefully.  For example, the study cited above presents a lot of facts about how differently people respond to different ways of phrasing questions about "welfare"-like programs, but doesn't do (or cite) any empirical studies of why they respond in these different ways.

There are also well-known effects of context,  including especially the previous questions in the survey, the characteristics of the people asking the questions, and so on.

I'm not very familiar with this research area, but what I know of it suggests that linguists (including psycholinguists, sociolinguists and so on)  have not played as much of a role it in as might be appropriate.]

[Update #2 — this particular poll result was also discussed in the NYT's Caucus blog yesterday, with some additional break-down by sub-group:

Democrats in the poll seemed particularly swayed by the wording. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. Republicans and independents varied less between the two terms.

The blog post promises that "Complete poll results and article will be available this evening at www.nytimes.com" (i.e. yesterday evening), but nothing seems to have shown up yet.]


  1. Mike Anderson said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    Just yesterday I mentioned this effect in a short talk on survey research. Thanks for the vivid example–it's going into my lecture from now on.

  2. Amy Stoller said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    There are lies
    There are damned lies
    And there are statistics
    — Attributed to just about everybody we would like to think said it, from Mark Twain to Teddy Roosevelt (of all people)

    The TPM commenter has an excellent point, actually. On a slightly tangential note, there are a couple of versions of the Heterosexual Questionnaire on the web, and there is a really good video showing how effective the question "When did you choose to be straight?" can be. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJtjqLUHYoY

    I just got a questionnaire/donation form from some Republican organization that is nothing but a series of Big Lies designed to elicit Republican support. If you don't know what the Democratic policies actually are, you'll check off No to every question and end up anti-Obama without knowing why. It said "Do Not Destroy" all over it, so naturally I shredded it. Should have kept for linguistic dissection, but it's too late now.

    I should add that I'm not a blind supporter of any party or elected official. At least, I try not to be. But the party of Lincoln ain't what she used to be.

  3. Mark P said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    I wonder what the results would be for a question about whether the Congress should provide for the general welfare.

  4. Colin John said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    What answer should a liberal pacifist give?

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    This sounds much like the effect gained by the notorious non-speech attributed to George Smathers, c. 1950, in which he refers to his opponent's sister as a thespian. Here is a good read on this matter: http://tinyurl.com/ykvwocy. In a similar vein, I was once accused by my ninth grade English teacher in front of my peers of masticating. She and I both knew the word, which she counted on, but fully 9 of 10 other classmates did not, which she also counted on, for the desired effect.

  6. Chris said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    To add even more confusion, the "Somewhat Favor" group (25 to 19) is the opposite of the "Strongly Favor" group (34 to 51). One interpretation of this is that the term "Homosexual" is more palatable to respondents if the level of favoring is hedged by "Somewhat."

    I'll wildly speculate on these results (because that's what blogs are for): In both cases cited ("Homosexuals" vs. "Gay Men & Lesbians" & "welfare" vs. "caring for the poor"), the first, seemingly more controversial term is a single word and the second is a phrase. It may be the case that we silly humans find it easier to attach strong emotional semantics to a single lexical item. One could imagine a study that looked at the role syntactic heaviness plays in survey response.

  7. Boris said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    Since the "gay and lesbian" term only exceeds in "strongly favor" could it be that people who are themselves homosexual actually prefer that term? After all, I'd think these people would be the most strongly in favor. Then again, I would think they would be strongly in favor no matter what they are called.

  8. Dierk said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Could be people simply don't know what 'homosexual' actually means but do remember it being uttered in negative contexts by revered political commentators like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. thus, the idea to check the results by asking the same for 'heterosexual' isn't cynical – it might prove a poin [several really].

    A few years back a German comedian did a Jaywalking stunt asking people – and they seemed to be a lot more representative than Mr Leno's chosen ones – if they would be content if candidate A for the post of Federal President was heterosexual. Turns out many were strongly opposed to having a heterosexual president*.

    *Germany's Federal President has almost no political power, he has essentially the same duties as England's King/Queen.

    [(myl) This is one of many explanations that occurred to me — I hinted at this one by quoting the TPM commenter; and I suggested another, namely that some people think "homosexual" refers to acts rather than orientations. Or maybe some people think that "homosexual" refers only to males, and they have a more positive attitude towards lesbians; or …, or …

    It's easy to spin out possible theories. What strikes me about this whole area of discussion is that nobody ever seems to test these theories. That is, there's a lot of empirical investigation of the practical question of which words and phrases will have which effects on responses; but little or no investigation of why.

    There was a lot of talk a few years ago about "framing" in this context, and "framing" in the Lakovian sense offers a particular sort of theory about why people might respond differently to different ways to describing the same policy. But I haven't seen much research designed to test these theories.

    (Or maybe I just don't know how to find this research — please point me in the right direction, if you know where it is…)]

  9. Jamougha said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    I believe that 'homosexual' is associated with bigoted speech while 'gay and lesbian' is associated with inclusive speech. Therefore it may be that some portion of people are being influenced towards giving what they perceive as the desired answer.

  10. Mark said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    In this context, the term "homosexual" sounds very clinical. In my experience, people self identify as "gay" or "straight" (or sometimes, "queer") and don't really refer to themselves as homosexuals except in a more humorous context (again, playing off the clinical-sound for either self-deprecating or ironic humor). I wonder if the word "homosexual" allows people to distance themselves from the human element; their prejudices seem less directed at individuals and more at an abstract.

  11. Cody L. Custis said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    I saw the NYT article on this last night. What I thought far more interesting was that the difference in positive support was far greater among Democrats than Republicans and independents.

    Are Democrats more / less aware of the meaning of the term homosexual as equivalent to gay men and lesbians then those of other political persuaion?

  12. Kylopod said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    Why would anyone oppose having joyful individuals or people from the island of Lesbos serve in the military?

  13. Trex said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    This result very well illustrated in the following video:

  14. IrrationalPoint said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    The effect of the word "evolution" in polling data has also been documented — more Americans say they agree with [some speciation-type story] than with evolution. The traditional explanation is that the word "evolution" is associated with a something that's in conflict with religious belief, whereas speciation is seen as being potentially compatible with religion.

    See for example this Pew article with Pew and Gallup poll data.


    [(myl) Again, something bothers me about this — the combination of careful empirical documentation of the effect, and relatively free and untested speculation about the cause.]

  15. Craig Russell said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    With a difference this large, I would be interested in examining the specifics of the way the survey was carried out–did one group of interviewers ask one version of the question, and a second group ask the other? If the groups of interviewers differed (in gender, in their perceived ethnic background, or even in their perceived sexual orientation) that could certainly account for a difference of this kind. That is to say, perhaps people are more/less comfortable telling people who they think are women/men, black/white/Asian/Hispanic/x, gay/straight that they support/don't support Don't Ask Don't Tell.

    Another thought that occurs to me: one difference in the wording that nobody is fixing upon is that the phrase "gays and lesbians" makes it obvious that the ruling will affect both men and women. My impression (and maybe I'm wrong) is that in general, abstract discussions about sexuality, when someone says "homosexuals", the image that pops into most people's minds is gay men.

    If I'm right here, then the people who were asked about "homosexuals" were mainly picturing gay men serving in the military–and because of the common stereotype that gay men are less masculine, more effeminate, etc, this might evoke a negative reaction in people with a certain world-view. But the people who were asked about "gay men and lesbians" were forced, by the wording of the question, to consider both genders–and there is the corresponding stereotype that lesbians are *more* masculine and less effeminate.

    I would be very interested to see results of a survey where half the people were asked if "homosexuals" should serve openly in the army, and the other half were asked if "gay people" should serve openly. I imagine you wouldn't see such a stark difference. Likewise, I'd like to see a study where half the people were asked if "gay men" should serve openly, and the other half were asked if "lesbians" should serve openly.

  16. Russell said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    Chuck Fillmore has a paper, "A linguistic look at survey research" (Cognition and Survey Research, 1999). As I recall, he mostly addressed issues of presupposition and technical vs lay uses of words (and it was not experimental at all). The other papers in that volume might contain something of relevance, but I don't have access to it at the moment.

  17. Chandra said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I think people are squeamish about any term that contains the word "sexual".

    [(myl) Again, a plausible theory — but researchers in the relevant subdisciplines are pretty good at testing such theories. The thing that strikes me is that (in this area of opinion research) it seems that hardly anyone ever does any empirical investigation (of purported causes, as opposed to effects), despite the great practical significance of the issues involved.]

  18. IrrationalPoint said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Again, something bothers me about this — the combination of careful empirical documentation of the effect, and relatively free and untested speculation about the cause.

    The cause isn't as well-argued as the empirical bits, but it's not completely unsupported and unscientific. It's worth having a look at the Gallup website data on evolution. Among other things, there's some documentation of responses when respondents are asked why they do not agree with the theory of evolution. Those explanations certainly could be better tested, but Pew isn't pulling this from nowhere.


  19. kip said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

    My first thought was that someone might respond "of course I support gay men & women in the military, because I support the troops." In other words, it might have made them think of people already serving, whereas "homosexual" steered their minds into the policy dispute of whether or not they should have been allowed in in the first place.

    Of course, the second example you post asks specifically about their ability to serve openly, so I think that blows the theory out of the water. But I thought I'd share it here.

  20. Kylopod said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    and because of the common stereotype that gay men are less masculine, more effeminate, etc, this might evoke a negative reaction in people with a certain world-view.

    Also, perhaps, some people might think of male homosexuals more threatening than lesbians. Some men have a fear of being hit on by a gay man, and I think this fear is more common than it is among women with regard to lesbians.

    For that matter, my impression has been that homophobes are much more likely to be men than women. Why do I think so? Partly it's because the virulent homophobes who have gotten the media attention are almost always men (Bob Dornan, Alan Keyes, John Gibson, Fred Phelps, etc.) and rarely women (Dr. Laura, whose homophobia was a lot milder than any of the previous examples). I've seen this in my personal life too; the rabid homophobes I've met are almost invariably men. I have no idea why this is the case, but it's a worthy question.

  21. Don Sample said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    I have to wonder if part of the difference was a result of the "and Lesbians". For many people the first thought on hearing "homosexual" is "gay male," and they need to be reminded that the term also applies to lesbians. For a significant portion of the male population the thought of lesbian sex is considerably more palatable than the thought of gay male sex.

  22. Rubrick said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    Whatever the precise interpretation of this, I think it supports my default hypothesis, namely "The vast majority of people are morons".

    [(myl) Perhaps, but it's also possible that the responses are entirely rational given the respondents' opinions and their understanding of the terms used. We can't tell.]

  23. Army1987 said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    On an unrelated note, why such surveys have "Favor" and "Oppose" but no "Don't Give a Damn"?

    [(myl) You'll notice that e.g. 44+42 = 86, which is less than 100. The remaining 14% (in that case) are the "no opinion" category.]

  24. Gavin said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    I have to agree with the comments above suggesting that many of the questionees may be strongly associating "homosexuals" with "gay men", though the gap in distribution is most likely attributed to a combination of factors. It might be interesting to find out how many people for DADT would also support a "Don't Ask Don't Tell Unless You're a Lesbian" policy.

    To be honest, a supporter of DADT could feasibly attempt to justify such an opinion, due to the fact that the majority of "military personnel" are still male, and thus there would be less opportunity for female-female sexual relationships to "cause problems".

  25. MH said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    "Gay men and lesbians" never really made much sense to me. Why not "gay men and women" or "gays and lesbians"?

  26. MelissaJane said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    @MH – or why not simply "gays" or "gay people"? The terminology has always seemed strange to me. Why is is that gay is often, but far from always, reserved for men? We do say gay women – gay isn't really a gendered term, it just plays one on TV – but for some reason, in what passes for formal usage, the convention has become gay men and lesbians.

    It's also interesting that when speaking of gay people, we categorize by gender even when it's not relevant to the discussion. Why is it always necessarly to point out that homosexual people come in both flavors, by using the "gay men and lesbians" construction? We wouldn't say, for example, "Jim Crow laws discriminated against African-American men and women," generally, unless there was some specific gender-related point to be made; we would just say African-Americans. In the examples above, "gay people" would have been a closer approximation of "homosexuals," by not specifically citing both genders.

  27. Ben said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    Here's another untested hypothesis: perhaps 'men' in 'gay men and lesbians' reminds respondents that gay men and lesbians are actually people, which 'homosexuals' does not.

  28. Mike K said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 12:48 am

    A commenter on Hacker News mentions Choices, Values, and Frames edited by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky as a book that contains empirical studies of framing and the like.

    Book at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0521627494/ref=cm_sw_su_dp

  29. Jair said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    I find myself very surprised by the results. The fact that the results are so wildly different based on such a simple synonym substitution is more damaging to my already-limited faith in people than the bigotry of barring gays from the military. Of course, any conclusions I might draw one way or another are tempered by the lack of information about the methodology of the poll.

  30. Daniel Barkalow said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 3:05 am

    I think that the question "Do you favor or oppose …sex… serving in the military?" is far more likely to make people think of condoning conduct unbecoming than words that don't have "sex" in them. The clinically-derived terms are harder to apply to people who have more of an appreciation for good-looking members of one sex than the other, but wouldn't do anything inappropriate.

    If you asked people if they're rather be diagnosed with a rhinovirus or told they have the flu, they'd probably pick the flu, even though that's generally a worse ailment, simply because if someone's using a medical term for a disease, it probably means that you haven't been able to take care of it yourself. Which set of words is contextually natural may be as big a factor in how you feel about a situation as the which word from that set is applicable.

  31. J. Goard said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 5:10 am

    I've got to object to the mockery of those who would (hypothetically?) oppose "heterosexuals serving openly". After all, employing pragmatic factors to help establish lexical semantics very, very quickly is what we're built to do. I'm honest enough to grant that it might not take many beers, or many hours working the cash register, before my low-level mechanisms might be slow enough for me to process the sentence in the pragmatically natural way. Lots of us, brilliant scholars included, have fallen for jokes like "What do you put in a toaster?" or "How many three-cent stamps are in a dozen?"

  32. Graeme said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    Why not just ask: 'Do you support a policy of allowing anyone to serve in the military regardless of sexuality/orientation'v

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    Lots of us, brilliant scholars included, have fallen for jokes like "What do you put in a toaster?" or "How many three-cent stamps are in a dozen?"

    Just fell for both of them :)

  34. Brett said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    As to why "gay" seems to refer primarily to men, somebody explained to me a long time ago that the reason was that gay men in America and Europe developed their own sub-culture in a way lesbians did not. The adjective "gay" was applied to aspects of this culture–gay clubs, gay fashion, etc.–which cemented "gay" as referred to male homosexuals specifically.

    [(myl) While the "distinct culture" idea is no doubt correct, the OED's earliest possible citation for gay meaning "homosexual" is

    1922 G. STEIN Miss Furr & Miss Skeene in Geogr. & Plays 17 Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then… They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there..not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.

    Though the OED observes "it is likely that … these [earlier quotations] have been interpreted anachronistically", the earliest clear citation also applies to both sexes:

    1941 G. LEGMAN Lang. Homosexuality in G. W. Henry Sex Variants II. 1167 Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity..or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.

    The gloss includes this note "Although more frequently used of male homosexuals, this sense can either include or exclude lesbians".]

  35. Peter Taylor said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    The question "Do you favor or oppose ___ being allowed to serve openly?" throws me for a loop. I think it would be clearer as "Do you favor or oppose open ___ being allowed to serve?"

  36. outeast said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 6:13 am

    Thank you, Peter Taylor, for showing I wasn't the only one to react like that. I kept thinking, 'Not serving openly – so what, it's about gays in the secret service?'. (Well, obviously I didn't. But I find it an unnatural way of phrasing it, and wondered that no one else had remarked (on) it.)

  37. Lori S. said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    I don't actually think it is the fact, alone, that "homosexual" contains the word "sexual" that accounts for the poll results.

    The history and the connotations of "homosexual" are very different from "gay" and "lesbian." "Homosexual" originated largely as a medical and psychiatric term, and was historically diagnostic – that is, indicating pathology. It has very strong pejorative connotations that have probably become subconscious as the word has entered the general vocabulary, but which have never been washed away. You rarely, very rarely, see people referring to themselves as homosexuals for this reason. There is a strong "pathologizing" element to the term. "Gay" and "lesbian" were words chosen specifically by the respective populations and have always been used in a self-referential and generally deliberately positive way ("gay pride").

    I hypothesize that this completely explains the poll results; it would be possible to test this by analyzing people's connotative associations with the respective words.

    Brett: it is not true that "lesbians did not" develop a subculture. We've developed several. They are more underground, the result, in part, of sexism.

  38. Swede said,

    February 15, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    "Why not simply "gays" or "gay people"? "

    Call it identity politics or call it old-fashioned, it's just plain polite to use the terms that people use to refer to themselves. We don't refer to those Jim Crow laws as discriminating against Negroes any more either.

  39. Emily Silgard said,

    February 16, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    My first thought was that the word homosexual directly implies a sexual act (which, for less than enthusiastic gay rights supporters is not a welcomed thought). While the second phrase actually contains the word,"man", which may have the effect of easing in some feeling of common humanity or empathy.

  40. Eggnog said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    Now it's quite early here and all, but based on my admittedly Foreign observations I'd say the shift is based on the fact that mentioning sex in any way (as in "homosexual") tends to make Americans feel really icky.

    Another Thing is probably that most people seem to associate "homosexual" with gay MEN especially, who are much more unpopular than lesbians (because lesbians are sexy and easily objectified, while gay men are scary and threatening to your masculinity).

  41. Ken Grabach said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    There is an awful lot of un-tested hypothesizing going on, despite Mark's inserted comments regarding them.

    Since this is a language blog, I would like to indicate that, in my experience, people who identify themselves as homosexual use the term 'gay' about themselves and those they know. Both men and women use this term, or use it about others. I have heard the term homosexuality (more often) and homosexual (less often) to describe the orientation, and not sexual acts. The usual terms anyone uses in common speech are used, instead for sex acts. Gay is used as a label for the person, as "I am gay", or "She is gay". Sometimes in more closed contexts, I have heard gay men refer to themselves as queer (both adjective and noun) or fruit (most often as a noun), or other terms thought derogatory when used in a wider public context. I have never heard someone make a statement of the type, "I am homosexual".

    And finally, I think it is worth checking in the research database PsychLit for research on framing of terms and labels, and attitude responses in survey questionnaires. There is bound to be such research, as the attitudes have such a profound effect on the outcome and validity of the surveys.

  42. David said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 12:41 am

    (Of course there are lots of untested hypotheses here; it's the internet. Here's another one:)

    My instinctive feeling is that the difference results from the fact that "gay men and lesbians" is a pluralization of (potentially specific) individuals while "homosexuals" is a general label. Even people that don't know a gay man or lesbian may have one come to mind when that term is used; on the other hand, homosexual can refer to either sex and is likely faceless. (As mentioned, this is a more "clinical" term.) The instinct feel is this: If a person thinks of an actual man that is gay or an actual woman that is lesbian, then s/he is more likely to support "gay men and lesbians" based on that individual, while not supporting "homosexuals".

    I don't believe it's a matter of significantly different meanings; there's no indication that the survey tried asking first one question and then the other, and if they had, I doubt the number of people who would switch their answers would come anywhere near 16%. People may be stupid at times, but we're not linguistically dysfunctional (yet).

    I also don't believe it's a matter of negative connotations – the term "gay" is still used in a pejorative sense (particularly on the internet) by many people in many situations.

    The problem with testing many of these possibilities is that it's almost impossible to separate all the layers that go into determining responses, especially when both linguistics and emotions are involved. Over a large enough sample size, all three of the "obvious categories of explanation" are going to get involved, and then there's the difficulty of measuring at what frequency and to what extent.

  43. Adam said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    quote: A cynical commenter at TPM suggested the control experiment of asking people if they favor "heterosexuals" serving openly in the military.

    The classic would be to ask if "practising homo sapiens" and "people who have openly matriculated" should be allowed.

  44. Drew Ward said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

    Americans more that any western culture seem to be totally uncomfortabe with the idea of sex, especially thinking of anyone else having it. I've even heard people complain that Gordon Ramsey changes his shirt on TV. It's a level of self-punitive piety wh h makes no sense. Thank you Christian Conservatives.

    I am thinkng that the term homosexual reduces these peoples existence down to a purely sexual level and that within the aforementioned context, this elicits an inherent discomfort or digust that independent of any opinion of the people themselves.

    Thus because Americans are so uncomfortable with sex and because homosexual refers to sex, particularly a type sex sone people fear and don't understand, use of that term skews results of non-sexual qeustionaires such as these with discomfort based on the respondents dysfunctional relationship with sex as a whole.

  45. Sam LG said,

    February 24, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    "effect" should be "affect". See also: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/misspelling

    [(myl) There are seven instances of "effect" or "effects" in the post, and eight or nine more in comments prior to this one. All are nouns meaning "something that is produced by an agency or cause", and thus properly spelled with an 'e' rather than an 'a'.

    So either you're one of those obnoxious people who take it on themselves to "correct" the speech or writing of others, while misunderstanding the principle involved and getting it backwards; or else you're pretending to be one of those people in order to cause turmoil and confusion.]

  46. A linguistics-lathered linkspam « by Erin Ptah said,

    March 6, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

    […] The power of word choice in its crazy, crazy action: Most people think "gay men & lesbians" should be allowed to serve in the military; however, when it comes to "homosexuals", the numbers are split down the middle. […]

  47. Fiona Sweeting said,

    March 17, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    I agree with Jamougha. The words 'gay men' and 'lesbians' are much softer and less threatening than 'homosexuals'. So, people would be more comfortable in favouring gay men and lesbians in the military.

  48. Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners | So, the Paxil thing said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    […] are notoriously susceptible to answering a question based on how it's worded: for example, a recent study showed that more people agreed that "gay men and lesbians" should be able to serve in […]

RSS feed for comments on this post