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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Social Psychological Approach to Sexual Orientation: Theory and Empirical Evidence

  • Author(s): Preciado, Mariana Alejandra
  • Advisor(s): Peplau, Letitia A
  • Johnson, Kerri L
  • et al.

Sexual orientation has two key aspects: actual sexual experiences (e.g., attraction, fantasy, and behavior) and beliefs about those sexual experiences (self-perceived sexual orientation). It is self-perceived sexual orientation that is most often measured and used to understand the mental, physical, and behavioral correlates of sexual orientation. While evidence suggests that features of the social context (e.g., social norms) are related to self-perceived sexual orientation, to date there is no theoretical model which explains the psychological mechanisms by which the social context influences these two aspects of sexual orientation. I draw from basic social psychological theory of motivated cognition to propose a novel approach to understanding both between-person and within-person variability in self-perceived sexual orientation (Chapter I). I propose that individuals are motivated by various social contextual, cultural, and individual factors to hold a particular conception of their sexual orientation, prompting them to interpret their sexual experiences in a way that is consistent with that motivated self-perception. For instance, a man from a socially conservative family who has a same-sex experience at a party might be motivated to avoid interpreting that same-sex experience as relevant to his sexuality. He might state that it only happened because he was drunk, allowing him to maintain the self-perception that he is exclusively attracted to women. Critically, I propose that the impact of motivation on self-perceived sexual orientation is contingent on an individual's ability to interpret their sexual experiences in a way consistent with those beliefs. Thus, a man who has only ever been attracted to men and has only experienced sexual behaviors with men will have a difficult time interpreting his sexual experiences to support the motivated belief that he is heterosexual. The central tenets of this approach are tested in the studies described in Chapters II and III.

In the three studies described in Chapter II, I tested whether heterosexually identified men and women who are exposed to cues likely to motivate particular beliefs about their own sexual orientation would show differences in their self-perceived sexual orientation. Across three studies using both explicit and implicit manipulations, different measures of self-perceived sexual orientation, and both adult and college-aged participants, I found that participants exposed to cues indicating that same-sex sexuality was stigmatized in their social environment reported less self-perceived same-sex sexuality than did participants exposed to cues indicating that same-sex sexuality was supported in their social environment.

In the study described in Chapter III, I tested whether the relationship between a motivational cue (i.e., the perception that significant others experience same-sex sexuality) and self-perceived sexual orientation was moderated by the amount of same-sex experience participants had. I found that heterosexually identified male and female participants with at least some same-sex experience (e.g., same-sex fantasies, kissing) showed a positive relationship between their perceptions of the amount of same-sex attraction experienced by significant others in their life (e.g., mothers, average citizen from their hometown) and their self-perceived same-sex sexual attraction. However, those participants with no same-sex experience showed no relationship, indicating that they had no same-sex experiences to interpret as indicating they experienced same-sex attraction.

Finally, in the study described in Chapter IV, I tested two important implications of the proposed motivated cognition approach: that self-perceived sexual orientation is weakly predictive of future sexual experience and that more specific measures less likely to be influenced by motivational factors are better predictors of future sexual experience. Among a sample of heterosexually identified men and women, I found that self-perceived sexual orientation predicted only 18% of the variance in future same-sex sexual experience. However, more specific measures of the likelihood of engaging in specific same-sex experiences predicted between 51% and 69% of the variance in future same-sex sexual experience.

In conclusion, the theoretical paper and accompanying studies offer a novel, social psychological perspective on between-person and within-person variability in self-perceived sexual orientation. Self-perceived sexual orientation, like other beliefs about the self, is subject to the influence of motivational factors. The influence of those factors is contingent on an individual's ability to interpret their sexual experiences in a motivated fashion. This approach offers insights into the psychological mechanisms underlying variability in self-perceived sexual orientation; highlights the weak relationship between self-perceived sexual orientation and actual sexual experience; and offers empirically testable predictions for future research.

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