Is a Liberal Bias Hurting Social Psychology? - Pacific Standard

Is a Liberal Bias Hurting Social Psychology?

The importance of ideological diversity in academia.
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(Photo: Jianqing Diao/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jianqing Diao/Shutterstock)

Eight years ago, a professor from the University of Arizona phoned José Duarte, then a prospective Ph.D. student, with an important question: "Do you really feel that way about Jimmy Carter?"

The woman on the phone was referring to a random blog post Duarte had written that was critical of the former president. "She said that everyone in the program—which was small, maybe four or five faculty—was against me because of the post except for her, and she was feeling out my views on Carter," says Duarte, now a doctoral candidate in social psychology at Arizona State University.

This oddly antagonistic experience made Duarte keenly aware of the lack of political diversity in his field. "That's really something that doesn't happen anywhere else," Duarte says. "In the software industry, no one is usually asked about their politics, but this attitude is present in every academic environment." He's one of the co-authors of a paper, published last month in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, arguing that social psychology has become markedly more leftist in recent years, creating a hostile climate for conservative would-be scholars and, most importantly, leading to poorer research. Other authors on the paper include prominent New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock.

"In the software industry, no one is usually asked about their politics, but this attitude is present in every academic environment."

In the process of working on this paper, many of the researchers—none of whom identify as conservative—received emails from conservative academics sharing their experiences. One email read: "I can't begin to tell you how difficult it was for me in graduate school, because I am not a liberal Democrat." Another: "I once had a professor yell at me and refuse to speak to me for two days all because I was respectfully critical of a political speech that he loved. For this reason, I have actually counseled some of my past undergraduate students about how to better deal with being a conservative in academia!" It's not purely anecdotal either. A 2012 paper by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers found that 37.5 percent of social psychologists surveyed would be comfortable discriminating against openly conservative colleagues.

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Academia in general has a reputation for leaning left, though there are few fully accepted theories as to why. The data is sometimes mixed: A study from 2007 suggested that professors were more likely to be centrist than leftist, while a more recent survey from the University of California–Los Angeles' Higher Education Research Institute found that the percentage of full-time faculty identifying as "far left" has jumped in recent years.

And while there were once four liberals for every conservative in academic psychology, since the 1990s the numbers have skewed 12-to-one, says Jarret Crawford, another co-author and an associate professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey.

(Photo: José Duarte)

(Photo: José Duarte)

This could simply be because conservatives are less interested in becoming academics. They typically score lower on the personality dimension known as "openness to experience," which strongly correlates with intellectualism. And the work of an academic is, by definition, intellectual work that involves wrangling with new ideas.

For his part, Duarte believes the personality tests are biased. He thinks questions that are supposed to measure "openness to experience" are worded in a way that may, instead, end up rewarding a certain type of cultural identification. "They ask things like, 'Am I sophisticated in art and literature?' Where I'm from—a rural place, which is also where many conservatives are from—you'd be ashamed to say something like that. People don't talk that way," he says. "It wouldn't be tapping into any underlying real personality construct with those people. We need to ask them things like, 'Do you like to sit at night and look at the stars?' 'Do you like to learn new things with your kids?' 'Do you like to read?'"

Yet diversity, according to Duarte, isn't just important because it makes people feel more welcome. Diversity, the paper argues, can guard against confirmation bias, and a lack thereof means that liberal values are being embedded in the methodology of the research itself.

"We have this tendency of characterizing conservative thinking and conservative behavior in very pejorative ways."

For proof of this skewed thinking, Duarte points to a 2008 paper by psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost, which claims that conservatives are happier than liberals because they "rationalize inequality." It is true, Duarte says, that conservatives care less about inequality than liberals do. But there's a difference between caring less about equality and "rationalizing" inequality, since rationalization specifically refers to a cognitive process in which people believe faulty premises to make themselves feel better. (Jost declined to comment for this article.)

"We never infer cognitive processes—what's happening in someone's mind—unless we have good evidence to do so," Duarte says. "Ascribing cognitive processes and motives to participants' attitudes is a big deal, and what we've been doing to conservatives for the past 30 years is really the only place where we get away with inferring processes and motives without our customary standards of evidence."

Other studies ask questions about how conservatives "legitimize" certain beliefs. Flipped around, this would be equivalent to questions like, "Why do liberals legitimize gay marriage?" and "Are liberals less happy than conservatives because they rationalize abortion?"

Crawford agrees that conservative stereotypes are often accepted at face value. When he was a graduate student in the early 2000s, he started reading a lot of studies about how "rigid" and "dogmatic" conservatives were. "This was during the run-up to the Iraq War, which I was strongly against, so I was really interested in this work and started trying to design my own studies to 'catch' conservatives acting in this way," says Crawford, who identifies as "very liberal." But his results were all over the board.

"We have this tendency of characterizing conservative thinking and conservative behavior in very pejorative ways, taking for granted that conservatives are 'rigid' when that's not necessarily true," Crawford says. "There have been a number of studies, including my own, showing equal bias, basically, between liberals and conservatives."

Duarte, Crawford, and the rest of the co-authors have suggested that professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, expand their anti-discrimination statements to include political diversity. These authoritative bodies should also, the authors argue, conduct "climate studies" of members' experiences, and explicitly recruit conservative scholars.

In August, Mark Leary, president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, said that the organization's executive committee briefly discussed the issue of ideological diversity at its board meeting. He did not, however, have time for a full discussion in subsequent months. According to Leary, SPSP will continue its discussion of supporting diversity, including ideological diversity, at its next board meeting in February.

In the meanwhile, psychologists need to become more aware of their own biases, Crawford argues. "I don't think the field is going to change in such a drastic way so it will be majority non-liberal," he says. "So bringing in diversity is important, but what's more important is training people who are liberal to leave their own biases at the door."

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