Angela G. Pirlott

Social Psychologist

​Saint Xavier University

Heterosexuals' Prejudices toward LGB: The Concern of Unwanted Sexual Interest

For example, mating motivations should enhance concerns of perceived unwanted sexual interest from certain sexual orientation targets; this perception should increase prejudice and avoidance of targets perceived to pose such threats. With Steven Neuberg (Pirlott & Neuberg, 2014, Social Psychological & Personality Science), I assessed the extent to which perceptions of unwanted sexual interest mapped onto heterosexuals’ sexual prejudices. In Study 1, heterosexual women perceived bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians to pose threats of unwanted sexual interest, but not heterosexual men (mutual sexual interest targets), or gay men and heterosexual women (mutual disinterest targets). Heterosexual men perceived threats of unwanted sexual interest from gay and bisexual men, but not from heterosexual men (mutual sexual disinterest targets), or from heterosexual and bisexual women (mutual sexual interest targets), or lesbians (unreciprocated sexual interest targets). See Figure 1 (right).

​​​In Study 2, heterosexual college students rated how negatively they felt toward each sexual orientation group.  Findings corresponded with perceptions of unwanted sexual interest. Heterosexual female participants expressed more negativity toward bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians relative to heterosexuals and gay men; heterosexual male participants displayed more negativity toward gay and bisexual men relative to heterosexuals and bisexual and lesbian women. Study 3 assessed both perceptions of unwanted sexual interest and general negativity; multilevel mediation analyses demonstrated that unwanted sexual interest mediated the relationship between sexual orientation groups and general negativity. See Figure 2 (right).


How do different features of the social environment affect our emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors?  My research employs an affordance management perspective to human cognition and behavior, which posits that people think about and respond to those around them in ways intended to better manage the potential opportunities (e.g., for friendship or romance) and threats (e.g., to mating opportunities or sexual autonomy) these others afford. I developed a program of research applying this perspective to prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, and because the complexity of some of these questions requires sophisticated designs and analyses, my second line of research focuses on developing methodological and analytic tools.

Prejudice, Stereotyping, & Discrimination

With Corey Cook, I developed a theory explaining variance in prejudice and discrimination as goal-activated and threat-driven (Pirlott & Cook, 2018, Psychological Review). This paper weds two evolutionarily informed perspectives—the sociofunctional threat-based approach to prejudice (Cottrell & Neuberg, 2005) and the fundamental motives theory (Kenrick et al., 2010). The sociofunctional threat-based approach to prejudice suggests that prejudices against outgroups arise as specific emotional reactions based on threats outgroups are perceived to pose (e.g., threats to physical safety elicit fear). The fundamental motives theory argues that human behavior evolved in response to a recurrent set of challenges to mating, parenting, health, physical safety, and social status. We combine these two perspectives to explain variance in prejudice, to explain what stereotype content is likely to direct specific affective and behavioral reactions, and to explain when that affordance-emotion-behavior link is likely to engage. Stereotypes that relay threat and opportunity information relevant to evolved, fundamental human motives (as opposed to stereotypes conveying information irrelevant to fundamental human motives) are likely to engage specific emotional and behavioral reactions to act strategically upon those threats and opportunities. The relevance of the threat and opportunity stereotypes depends upon the perceiver’s currently activated fundamental motives—either temporarily activated or chronically activated (i.e., individual differences). Accordingly, our perspective argues that although there is often a set of stereotypes about a particular group, the stereotypes that engage emotional and behavioral reactions depend upon their threat- and opportunity-relevance to the perceiver’s currently active fundamental motives. This also suggests that the perception of affordances varies as a function of the relevant goals of the perceiver to predict nuanced emotional and behavioral responses toward the particular target. 

LGB Prejudices toward Heterosexuals

I extended that work to examine LGB individuals’ perceptions of threats and opportunities posed by and prejudices toward heterosexual men and women (Pirlott, Rusten, & Butterfuss, 2016, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin). All LGB groups felt anger and resentment toward heterosexual men and women (all comparisons are relative to their own group). All LGB groups feared heterosexual men, and gay men also feared heterosexual women. Gay men, lesbians, and bisexual women (but not bisexual men) felt morally disgusted by heterosexual men; and gay men and lesbians (but not bisexuals) also felt morally disgusted by heterosexual women. What explains these specific emotional reactions toward some heterosexual groups by certain LGB groups? 

All LGB groups perceived that heterosexual men and women discriminate against them by restricting their personal rights and freedoms, which contributed to all LGB groups' anger toward heterosexual men and women, except for bisexual men's anger/resentment toward heterosexual women. ​Their anger and resentment toward heterosexual women was driven instead due to their perception that heterosexual women do not reciprocate their sexual interests.

All LGB groups also felt heterosexual men were particularly physically dangerous, and this perception statistically contributed to their fear of heterosexual men in particular. Bisexual women and lesbians, on the other hand, also believed heterosexual men to be sexually aggressive, and gay men believed heterosexual women to be sexually aggressive. Perceptions of these threats to their sexual autonomy also contributed to bisexual women's and lesbians' fear of heterosexual men, and gay men's fear of heterosexual women. 

Finally, all LGB groups believed heterosexual men and women hold values and beliefs that oppose their own, try to push their values on them, are closed-minded and judgmental, and aren’t allies of the LGB community—i.e., they felt that heterosexuals undermine their values. The perception that heterosexuals undermine their values explained lesbians’ and bisexual women’s moral disgust toward heterosexual men, and lesbians’ moral disgust toward heterosexual women. 

Mediation Designs

Identifying causal mechanisms has become a cornerstone of experimental social psychology, and editors in top social psychology journals champion the use of mediation methods, particularly innovative ones when possible (e.g., Halberstadt, 2010; Smith, 2012). Commonly, studies in experimental social psychology randomly assign participants to levels of the independent variable and measure the mediating and dependent variables, and the mediator is assumed to causally affect the dependent variable. However, participants are not randomly assigned to levels of the mediating variable(s), i.e., the relationship between the mediating and dependent variables is correlational. Although researchers likely know that correlational studies pose a risk of confounding, this problem seems forgotten when thinking about experimental designs randomly assigning participants to levels of the independent variable and measuring the mediator (i.e., “measurement-of-mediation” designs). Accordingly, an additional line of research develops methodological and analytical strategies to enhance understanding of psychological mechanisms for the practical purpose of complementing the complex methods frequently employed in social psychology. 

Experimental Mediation Design Approaches to Enhancing Causal Inference in Mediation

One line of research with Dave MacKinnon focuses on developing experimental designs (and their related analyses) to manipulate the mediator in order to demonstrate a true causal M to Y relationship (Pirlott & MacKinnon, 2016, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). In our article, we discuss types of manipulation-of-mediator manipulations and types of manipulation-of-mediator designs. Specifically, we describe two types of manipulation-of-mediator manipulations—one that experimentally manipulates the mediator to demonstrate an effect on Y and one that experimentally manipulates the effect of the mediator to either strengthen or weaken the effect of X on Y through the mediator, using either blockage or enhancement manipulations. ​We also describe three types of manipulation-of-mediator designs—double randomization, concurrent double randomization, and parallel designs.

Statistical Approaches to Enhancing Causal Inference in Mediation

A second avenue of research with Dave MacKinnon focuses on translating new approaches to statistical causal inference in mediation designs (MacKinnon & Pirlott, 2015, Personality & Social Psychology Review). In this article, we summarize three ways to assess potential confounder bias and four statistical approaches to enhance causal interpretation of the M to Y relationship, including comprehensive structural equation models, instrumental variable methods, principal stratification, and inverse probability weighting. Perhaps easiest for social psychologists is to include all potential mediators and confounds in a structural equations model to minimize the likelihood of unmeasured confounds affecting the M to Y relationship.