UCLA Anderson Ph.D. student Benjamin Everly was bouncing around ideas in the office with Associate Professor Margaret Shih when they started discussing the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. At the time, DADT was still the official policy of the nation's armed forces, a policy that allowed gay men and women to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation private. The "theory" behind DADT was that serving alongside openly gay comrades would hinder the performance of other soldiers. They uncovered some studies that examined how concealing or disclosing one's identity impacted one's own performance, but there was a gap in the literature when it came to how disclosure impacted one's colleagues.
Everly said he and Shih could imagine a variety of impacts and scenarios and decided to take a look at the issue. They added Everly's fellow Ph.D. student Geoffrey Ho to the research team and set about to conduct a study and write a paper.
The resulting study has since been published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The paper concluded that working alongside a person with an ambigious sexual orientation was more detrimental to performance than working alongside an openly gay colleague. It basically proved the opposite of what most DADT proponents believed and that performance was enhanced when the ambiguity was eliminated.
Before getting the results, Everly admitted that the survey results could have gone the other way, they might have confirmed the beliefs of DADT proponents. "If the results had revealed that participants performed worse when they knew they were working with a gay colleague, there would have been further opportunities to find out why and what types of interventions might be needed to increase performance. That would also have been a contribution to the literature," Everly said, "We were committed to publishing the results no matter what they said."
The study had two components. According to the paper, Study 1 examined whether participants working with openly gay partners perform better on a cognitive task than participants working with ambiguously gay partners. Study 2 examined whether participants working with openly gay partners performed better on a sensory-motor task than participants working with ambiguously gay partners. In both cases, those working with an openly gay partner performed better than those working with the ambiguously gay partner.
At the UCLA Anderson Blog, we wondered how a study done on UCLA students translated to those in the military. We had no intention of stereotyping either population, except to wonder if there were attitudinal differences between those who chose to attend university and those who chose to enter the military. Everly explained that the potential for differences between the two populations was dealt with by measuring the heterosexism of the participants. The team found that there was no difference in results between those with high and low heterosexism.
Everly, who is just starting his third year in Anderson's Ph.D. program (with a goal of possible finishing in four years), is considering expanding the research into his dissertation. He's careful to point out that the study is not intended to persuade gays in the military (or anywhere else) to "come out;" noting that there are a variety of circumstances and factors that one must consider before "safely" making that decision.
"We're not making that argument that everyone should come out and recognize that coming out is not always safe," Everly said. "And not all people will perform better when they know their colleague is gay. What we found out is interesting and exciting, but we still want to be cautious."