2011. Vol.2, No.5, 456-459
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.25071
The Impact of ‘Violating the Heterosexual Norm’ on Reading
Speed and Accuracy
Joël Dickinson
Psychology Department, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Canada.
Received April 28th, 2011; revised June 9th, 2011; accepted July 15th, 2011.
This study explores the impact of “schema non-congruent” content on reading speed that has been found in rela-
tion to non-stereotypical gender roles. The goal of the present study is to assess if this effect translates to mate-
rial that violates the “heterosexual norm”. Further, the present study explores whether the impact can be mini-
mized by providing context prior to the exposure of sentences. Data indicated that the impact of sexuality was
dependent on the gender of the main character and whether participants had been primed with context or not.
Regardless of the time taken to read sentences, accuracy of material was recalled at a constant rate. In conclu-
sion, the activation of “heterosexuality” does seem to be an automatic process such as the activation of gender.
Keywords: Schema, Reading, Accuracy
From a mental model perspective, readers are continually
updating their ‘representation’ of what is being read as they
gather more and more information from a passage (Carreiras,
Garnham, Oakhill & Cain, 1996). However, much of what we
read demands that we already have a representation of the
topic/object/individual being read about, even prior to the read-
ing of a passage (Carreiras et al., 1996). Schemas are mental
representations of individuals, objects, or events, can serve to
facilitate text comprehension via the organization and categori-
zation of information presented within a text. Schemas have
been demonstrated to aid in the organization of, and therefore
understanding of information that is being read (e.g., Bransford
& Johnson, 1972). However, development of schemas is not
always beneficial in reading comprehension. For example,
stereotypes (schemas about social groups such as women, or
minorities) can sometimes interfere with processing the true
meaning of a passage (e.g. Carreiras et al., 1996; Duffy & Keir,
2004; Oakhill, Garnham, & Reynolds, 2005).
Data from several experiments suggest that activation of
stereotypes is automatic, and for the most part, unintentional
(e.g., Banaji & Hardin, 1996). Banaji and Hardin (1996) con-
cluded that response latencies, such as the semantic priming
procedure are quite useful in assessing implicit stereotype be-
liefs. This automatic activation has also been found in the con-
text of reading longer passages (e.g., Reynolds, Garnham, &
Oakhill, 2006), where reading speed was shown to slow upon
reaching a ‘seemingly incongruent’ part of a sentence. For ex-
ample, Sanford’s (1985) now famous conundrum about the
surgeon: “A father and son are driving home one day, when
they are involved in a serious accident. The father is killed out-
right, but the son is driven to hospital, where he is about to
undergo an emergency operation. However, the surgeon refuses
to operate, saying: I can’t operate on him: he’s my son” (p. 311).
It was hypothesized that this slowing would not have occurred,
unless the participant had previously developed a mental repre-
sentation of the surgeon as “male”.
Recording reading latency, combined with eye-movement
measurements, Duffy and Keir (2004) investigated the effect of
using reflexive pronouns which denoted a non-stereotypical
gender to refer to a previously stated role name. For example,
the reflexive pronoun “she” when referring back to the previ-
ously stated role of “electrician”. It was hypothesized by Duffy
and Keir (2004) that the reading of a stereotypical role (such as
electrician) would automatically activate the gender stereotype
associated with it (in this case “male”). Thus, upon reaching the
non-stereotypical pronoun further in the sentence, ambiguity
arises, interfering with the processing of the sentence and cre-
ating a delay in the completion of the sentence. Furthermore,
Duffy and Keir (2004) explored whether providing a discourse
context prior to the introduction of the non-stereotypical role
pronoun could diminish the impact of said pronoun. Results did
support the notion of interference of sentence comprehension
(with longer reading times for sentences that contained non-
stereotypical gender pronouns), however, only if the stereo-
typical role was previously stated without the context of gender.
That is, if gender was referred to prior to the mentioning of the
role, the effect was diminished. Eye-movement analysis also
showed that within the “extra” time to read the sentences con-
taining seemingly incongruent material, participants had in-
creased fixation times for the reflexive pronouns
The impact of gender on word processing speed has even
been shown when the task was not in the context of gender
stereotyping (Banaji & Hardin, 1996). Banaji and Hardin (1996)
found that the word “he” was responded to faster when asked if
it was a pronoun, than the word “she”. Banaji and Hardin’s
(1998) concluded that the reason for the gender priming effect
in their study was a reflection of the social position of the dif-
ferent genders in society, where the faster processing of male
primes reinforced the notion that society is mal e-centered.
Heteronormative expectations (heterosexual Norm) are pre-
sent within society and heterosexuality is taken for granted or
assumed (Nielson, Walden, & Kunkel, 2000). The present
study is an attempt to generalize the interference generated by
gender stereotype incongruency to the area of sexuality. That is,
is the activation of “heterosexuality” automatic when reading
material about an individual? It is hypothesized that the same
interference in reading speed will be seen upon reading the
word “wife” in relation to reading about a previously men-
tioned “woman”, as is seen when reading the word “she” when
referring to a previously mentioned ‘electrician’. The second
goal of this study was to evaluate if, as in Duffy and Keir (2004)
providing context would eliminate this possible interference.
That is, if participants are primed with a homosexual context,
will it eliminate or reduce the hypothesized impact on reading
speed? If data from Duffy and Keir (2004) generalize to the
context of assumed sexuality, it is hypothesized that context
will reduce the impact. Given Banaji and Hardin’s (1996) find-
ings concerning the processing differences found when refer-
ring to men versus women, it is also important to explore the
impact of gender in the current study to evaluate whether this
would extend to current context. We are also interested in
evaluating if reading speed has an impact on subsequent mem-
ory of the read material.
The participants were forty students from Laurentian Univer-
sity. Participants had a mean age of 19.25 years (S = 2.25) with
a mean year of study of 2.08 years (S = .62). Thirty-six of the
participants considered themselves to be heterosexual, while 4
did not. Thirty-five females and 5 males participated in the
Video Primes
Context was manipulated as a grouping variable using a video
prime: either heterosexual context, or homosexual context:
Heterosexual Context: depicts a heterosexual family, where
the mother of a young son is discussing the issue of parenting
her son. Approximately 6 minutes in length.
Homosexual Context: features a young boy discussing issues
that he encountered growing up with two lesbian mothers.
Approximately 6 minutes in length.
Sentences and Comprehension Questions
In the sentence reading task, twenty sentences (10 with ho-
mosexual main characters and 10 with heterosexual main char-
acters, each with 5 male characters and 5 female characters)
were read. The sentences appeared one at a time on a computer
monitor. Participants responded via mouse key when they
completed reading the sentence. Each sentence was followed by
a yes/no question pertaining to the sentence previously viewed.
The comprehension questions all consisted of Yes/No re-
sponses. All of the sentences and questions were centered on
the screen against a white background in black font. In addition,
the order of the sentences was randomly generated using
E-Prime software package (2.0) (Schneider, Eschman, & Zuc-
colotto, 2002), reading speed and accuracy were also recorded
using this program.
The sentences were structured as anaphora reflexive, where
the referring expression and the critical noun phrase are de-
pendent on one another and are bound and controlled by means
of a subordinating conjunction in order to force them together
grammatically. For example, “Last night, in the packed movie
theatre Hannah screamed loudly until her wife held her close”.
All twenty sentences were 22 syllables and 16 words long.
The comprehension questions were always about content unre-
lated to the main character’s sexuality and gender. For example,
Was the theatre full?”
In addition to typical demographics, the following questions
were asked of each participant: 1) Do you consider yourself to
be heterosexual? 2) Do you know anyone who is not hetero-
sexual? 3) If yes, how many people do you who are not hetero-
sexual? Describe the relationship with them (e.g. family mem-
ber, friend, other). 4) How often do you interact with this per-
son(s)? 5) How much influence does this person(s) have in your
life (1 “no influence”-5 “very influential”)
Participants attended one session in groups of four, and were
greeted by a female experimenter. Each group was randomly
assigned beforehand into one of two context conditions (het-
erosexual prime vs. homosexual prime). With half of the par-
ticipants primed with the heterosexual video and the other half
with the homosexual video. Participants then completed the
sentence reading task as described above.
Results were analysed through a 2 (Context: heterosexual
prime vs. homosexual prime) × 2 (Sexuality of the main char-
acter: heterosexual vs. homosexual) × 2 (Gender of the main
character: male vs. female) mixed model ANOVA.
Reading Time
Four participants were removed as univariate outliers (2 from
each Context condition) leaving 18 in each group. A significant
main effect was found for gender (F(1,34) = 20.60, p < .05, η2
= .38), however there was a significant Context x Sexuality x
Gender interaction (F(1,34) = 4.12, p < .05, η2 = .12) therefore
the main effect will not be interpreted. See Figure 1. Bon-
feronni post hoc tests were conducted for the homosexual prime
group and indicated a significant difference between reading
Figure 1.
Mean reading times in milliseconds per condition.
times which contained heterosexual female main characters (M
= 8.36 seconds), and those which contained heterosexual male
characters (M = 6.92 seconds), t = 4.04, p < .0125, this differ-
ence was not found in the homosexual main character condition
(female M = 7.66 seconds, male M = 7.46 seconds). Inversely,
for the heterosexual prime group there was no significant read-
ing speed difference found between female (M = 8.85 seconds)
and male (M = 8.29 seconds) main character sentences for the
heterosexual condition, but there was for female (M = 9.47
seconds) and male (M = 8.47 seconds) characters in the homo-
sexual character co nd iti on t = 2.51, p < .0125.
A Sexuality by gender interaction was found to be significant
(F(1,34) = 1.95, p < .05, η2 =.17). (Please note that the accuracy
rates are presented in Figure 2 to mimic the 2 × 2 × 2 design
shown in the reading time figure). Post-hoc analysis (with
Bonferonni correction) revealed accuracy levels for questions
regarding heterosexual females (M = .85) versus homosexual
females (M = .86) not to be significantly different. Accuracy
rates for questions regarding heterosexual male (M = .69) ver-
sus homosexual male questions were found to be significantly
different F(1,35) = 39.38, p < .025.
Does Homosexuality Count?
Among the demographic questions asked of participants if
they considered themselves to be heterosexual, along with
questions regarding how many (if any) individuals that they
knew who did not consider themselves heterosexual, and how
important were these people in their life. All but one participant
indicated that they had people who were close to them who
identified as “non-heterosexual”. It was thought that how well
people identified with homosexuals would mediate the auto-
matic activation of heterosexuality of the characters in the sen-
tences, however including “influence” (number of people close
to the participant who identified as non-heterosexual) as a fac-
tor in an ANCOVA did not result in significant differences to
the results. Four participants identified as being “non-hetero-
sexual”, excluding them from the analysis did not alter the re-
sults of any analyses.
A three way interaction (Context × Sexuality × Gender) was
found for reading times, indicating that the impact of each of
Figure 2.
Mean accuracy rates per condition.
the main effects was dependent on the level of the other two
variables. Although the main effect of Sexuality was not found
to be significant, the hypothesis that activation of “heterosexu-
ality” was automatic, and would therefore result in a slowing of
reading speeds if a character was later identified as homosexual,
was partially supported. Evaluation of Figure 1 shows that the
impact of reading the word “husband” in relation to a previ-
ously mentioned man results in a slower reading time than
when reading the word “wife” in relation to a previously men-
tioned man. This holds true for both the heterosexual context
condition: heterosexual main character, homosexual main
character and for the homosexual context condition: heterosex-
ual main character, homosexual main character. However, for
female main characters, although the heterosexual context
group data do support the impact of introducing homosexual
content leading to a slowing of reading speed (heterosexual
main character, homosexual main character), the homosexual
context group showed the opposite effect. That is, for the ho-
mosexual context, the impact of reading the word “wife” in
relation to a previously mentioned woman results in a faster
reading time than reading the word “husband” in relation to a
previously mentioned woman. This result suggests that the
impact of priming of a homosexual context had an opposite
impact when the mai n cha r acter is female versus mal e .
The question as to whether a previously denoted context
could act to reduce the automatic activation of “heterosexual-
ity” was also partially supported. The combined reading speed
means for male and female characters for the heterosexual con-
text, were greater than the combined means for the male and
female main character homosexual context. This data support
the generalization of findings of Duffy and Keir (2004) who
found that providing the context of gender prior to the men-
tioning of a non-stereotypical noun can reduce the interference
of the processing of the sentence.
The evaluation of the impact of gender results in an expected
finding. The data from Banaji and Hardin’s (1998) study would
suggest that sentences with males as a main character would be
processed faster than sentences with a female main character.
Not only did the significant main effect from the present study
support this, when evaluating the individual cell means it is
evident that the reading times for sentences containing male
characters were consistently faster for those containing females
characters within each condition (see Figure 1).
The most interesting result with the accuracy with which
material was immediately recalled within the sentences, is that
regardless of the amount of time spent reading the sentence
(and therefore processing it), accuracy for information of sen-
tences with homosexual main characters remained consistent.
Figure 2 shows that the speed/accuracy trade off (Ollman, 1966)
holds true for information from sentences with heterosexual
main characters for all conditions. That is, the difference be-
tween accuracy for the male and female sentences for both the
heterosexual context group and homosexual context group
mimic the response time differences. However, for the homo-
sexual main character sentences, accuracy remains consistently
high, even for conditions that resulted in significantly faster
response times. The bizarreness effect (e.g., Richman, 1994;
Macklin & McDaniel, 2005) showed a facilitation of informa-
tion processing for items/sentences that are “bizarre” relative to
other stimuli in a task where memory is later tested (e.g., im-
agery task). It could be argued that sentences which contain
homosexual main characters are a novel enough experience to
be considered “bizarre” in this context. It has been hypothe-
sized that memory for sentences including “bizarre” material
are encoded in more than 1 way, one where it is attempted to
remember the sentence in a verbatim way, and 1 where the
information is restructured into a more meaningful way (Nelson
& Hill, 1974). This dual encoding thus results in more effective
retrieval of all of the information contained within the sentence.
Alternatively, more cognitive effort could be responsible for the
increased processing of information that is “bizarre” (Tyler,
Hertel, McCallum, & Ellis, 1979), with more elaborative proc-
essing being performed on sentences which contain ‘bizarre’
material, therefore resulting in a higher accuracy in memory of
material contained within the sentences.
In conclusion, the activation of “heterosexuality” does seem
to be an automatic process such as the activation of gender
biases (Duffy & Keir, 2004). Providing context prior to expo-
sure to sentences which contain homosexual main characters
which were male did not negate the interference in reading
speed. Conversely, providing context prior to exposure to sen-
tences which contained female homosexual main characters
acted to speed up the reading process. Regardless of the time
taken to read sentences, accuracy of material was recalled at a
constant rate.
Future research could examine longer passages containing
more complex material to confirm if the absence of accuracy
rate differences is not an artifact of the material being too sim-
ple. Eye-movement could also be recorded in order to compare
Duffy & Kier’s (2004) finding of elongated fixation rates on
“incongruent” material.
The author wishes to thank Angelica Sourini for her assis-
tance in collecting data used in this study.
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