New research from Goldsmiths, University of London and ISCTE-CIS in Lisbon has revealed that straight people feel an overwhelming but unconscious need to physically cleanse after imagining contact with gay men. This was found to be particularly true for political conservatives.

A set of four experiments demonstrates that prejudice towards homosexuals may be experienced and expressed through physical cleansing, as a reaction to thoughts of physical contamination. Existing research undertaken in this field has demonstrated that the subconscious mind behaves in a way that avoids ‘contaminating’ contacts.

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, one of the lead researchers, based in the Department of Psychology, said: ‘Labelling people as impure is a culturally universal way of expressing prejudice. Just look at the language of hostile propaganda throughout history and you will see targeted groups described as unclean.

‘Physical cleansing is used as a way to respond through actions such as excluding from social life, depriving of human rights, imprisoning or finally exterminating.’

Four studies

The researchers undertook four studies with a variety of different people to investigate whether this idea of contamination and prejudice applied to homosexuals as a social group. ‘We were shocked,’ says de Zavala, ‘to find that all studies overwhelmingly demonstrated that prejudice was expressed through the desire to cleanse oneself after only an imagined contact with homosexuals.’

In the first of the studies, UK graduate students were asked to imagine a scenario in which they had to make a phone call from a phone borrowed either from a homosexual or a heterosexual man. They then had to do a word association exercise with a mix of cleanness-related words, neutral words and words around cleansing. Those who imagined borrowing a phone from a gay man generated significantly more words about cleansing than those who had imagined borrowing the phone of a heterosexual man.

In the second study, 55 Portuguese participants had to write out the same scenario as the UK students were told about, then were offered either a yellow pencil or yellow disinfecting wipe. Participants who imagined borrowing a phone from a gay man chose cleansing wipes more often.

Next, 50 Polish undergraduate students were asked to imagine the same scenarios and then asked to evaluate the desirability of various products, including hand and mouth sanitiser. Those who imagined borrowing from a homosexual man said the cleansing products were more desirable than those who imagined borrowing from a straight man.

The fourth study was with 41 political activists linked to a conservative political party in Poland, and 41 non-activists. They had to imagine the same scenarios, and then had to complete the word completion task used in Study 1 and the marketing survey used in Study 3. The results replicated the other studies, and provide additional evidence that the need to decontaminate is informed by people’s political world view.

Why the need to clean?

The researchers suggested several reasons why straight people felt the need to clean themselves –

  1. Preventing disease. Male homosexuality, specifically since the Aids crisis in the 1980s, is associated with the stigma of disease. Homosexuals as a group may then be construed as a health threat. Such groups perceived as a health threat may be avoided, disliked or excluded because of the human desire to avoid disease. This might have been adequate for human ancestors but now it is not and it just lags on​.
  2. Preventing moral contamination. For humans, the social and cultural environment is seen as another domain in which contamination can take place.
  3. Preventing contamination of ‘group essence’. People tend to think about certain social groups as having a different underlying nature or essence. The essence of a group targeted by prejudice may contaminate the essence of their own group when the two meet.

de Zavala adds: ‘It’s alarming that, in this day and age, when charities like Stonewall and the Peter Tatchell Foundation are doing so much to tackle homophobia, this prejudice can be still found on a subconscious level. It may be difficult to reduce prejudice people are unaware they hold. But our findings, particularly around the political conservatives, show that this prejudice is still in part determined by socio-cultural world views. Therefore there is still hope that more can be changed with education to limit and eradicate prejudice.’