Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Deborah L. Tolman

Committee Members

Brett G. Stoudt

Sean G. Massey

Yuko Higashi

Jay Verkuilen

Subject Categories

Multicultural Psychology | Social Psychology


critical psychology, mixed methods, cross-cultural, essentialist beliefs, sexual orientation, Euler diagrams


Methods for studying laypeople’s beliefs about sexual orientation categories have evolved in step with larger theoretical and epistemological shifts in the interdisciplinary study of sexuality. The dominant approach to measuring laypeople’s sexual orientation beliefs over the past decade was made possible through an epistemological shift from a nature vs. nurture paradigm to a social constructionist theoretical model of psychological essentialism (Medin, 1989; Medin & Ortony, 1989; Rothbart & Taylor, 1992). Despite this shift, I argue that the forced-response scale-based survey methodologies typically used to operationally define essentialist beliefs about sexual orientation at best only partially realize the social constructionist potential of this underlying theory. By critically reconstructing this theory of psychological essentialism from an epistemological stance rooted in discourse, I developed a methodology reliant not on investigators’ but rather laypeople’s own mobilization of culturally shared discourses of sexuality. In testing this methodology, I focus on one theoretical dimension of psychological essentialism—inductive potential, or the extent to which shared knowledge about category membership allows for inference of a wealth of associated information about specific category members. I explored this critical methodology through a mixed-method empirical investigation of laypeople’s beliefs in the inductive potential of sexual orientation categories in relation to two components of sexuality: sexual desire and romantic love. I sought to answer two research questions:

  1. To what extent, and in what ways, do laypeople discursively mobilize inductive potential beliefs about homosexual or heterosexual men’s sexual desire and romantic love?

  2. To what extent, and in what ways, is laypeople’s discursive mobilization of those inductive potential beliefs explained by their gendered and/or cultural contexts?

In Study 1, I primed cultural discourses of sexual orientation categories prior to an impression formation task. Students from four-year public universities in the Tokyo (N = 197; ages 18-23) and New York City (N = 208; ages 18-25) metropolitan areas read a series of fictional diary entries featuring a male college student (the target) describing his attraction to either a female or male classmate. Each participant then manually drew a Euler diagram comprised of circles representing their impressions of the relative importance (circle size) and interrelationships between (circle overlap) six identities associated with the target. To the extent participants engaged in inductive potential beliefs, I predicted that: (H1) participants would perceive sexual desire as more centrally defining of a same-sex attracted male target relative to an other-sex attracted male target; and (H2) participants would perceive romantic love as less centrally defining of a same-sex attracted male target relative to an other-sex attracted male target. Fitting multiple circle size and overlap outcomes to separate generalized linear models, I found a consistent pattern of support for both predictions. Cultural and gendered differences added additional nuance to these experimental patterns: Japanese participants associated men with greater sexual desire and less romantic love relative to their US peers, regardless of perceived sexual orientation. Additionally, US and Japanese men, compared to women, appeared to associate these two components of sexuality more frequently with men’s social roles. As such, while these results strongly suggested the presence of participants’ inductive potential beliefs about sexual orientation categories, they also pointed to important variation across culture and gender.

In an effort to discursively unpack the inductively rich meanings associated with these additional gendered and cultural patterns, as well as establish the cultural credibility of my interpretations of the results of this experimental manipulation, in a second study I engaged separate peer focus groups in New York City (N = 20; ages 19-25) and Tokyo (N = 21; ages 20- 24) in discursively interpreting the Euler diagrams produced in Study 1. Using thematic analysis, I identified three themes concerning the ways several distinct sexual orientation discourses were culturally understood in the US and Japan; the ways those discourses were imbricated with other distinct discourses of cultural identity; and the ways laypeople voiced resistance to these sexual orientation discourses. I concluded that the experimental pattern from Study 1 could be explained in part through US participants’ rejection of an essentialist discourse of binary sexual orientation in favor of a focus on sexual practices; Japanese participants’ responses marked instead a troubling of essentialist discourses of binary gender. Taken together, these findings from Study 1 and 2 implicate sexual orientation as an inductively potent discourse in laypeople’s construction of beliefs about male sexuality across cultural contexts and genders, albeit in cultural distinct ways. These results thus add to past research on essentialist beliefs while also highlighting a need for critical methodologies sensitive to the ways culturally embedded and multiply imbricated transnational discourses of sexuality inform beliefs about men.