Social psychologists are almost all liberals—and it’s really hurting the field

Psychologists can behave like…
Psychologists can behave like…
Image: Reuters/Jacky Naegelen
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In 2011, Prof. Jonathan Haidt, of New York University’s Stern School of Business, asked a gathering of some 1,000 psychologists to raise their hands if they identified as politically conservative. Exactly three people did.

In a study published this week in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Haidt and his co-authors argue that this lack of political diversity—specifically, the near-absence of conservative viewpoints—is hurting social psychology, allowing biased language to creep into experiments and promoting findings advancing liberal narratives while ignoring those at odds with them.

The effect was most pronounced in research on issues of greatest concern to leftwing politics, like race, gender, power, inequality, and environmentalism. (None of the authors identify as conservative or Republican.)

A field whose practitioners cluster at one end of the political spectrum is more susceptible to the trap of confirmation bias—which means seeking out data that supports existing beliefs and discounting data that doesn’t—and less amenable to the intellectual sparring that leads to deeper, stronger research, the study’s authors wrote.

In response, they suggest that scholars tackle anti-liberal discrimination as they have bias against other demographic groups: expanding diversity statements to cover political orientation, being alert to double standards, seeking out cross-partisan research collaborations.

Sixty-five percent of scientists self-identified as liberal or very liberal in a 2009 Pew Research Center poll. Only 9% called themselves conservative, compared to 25% and 37%, respectively, in the general US population. Among US psychologists, the ratio of political liberals to conservatives is 10.5-to-1.

That number has crept up over the last four decades. Graduate students are even more likely to identify as liberal than existing professors, suggesting that the leftward march will continue. (In a comment appended to the article, psychology professor Lee Ross, of Stanford University, suggested that academics’ increasing self-identification as Democrats was a result of the Republican Party’s move to the right, particularly on social issues.)

Self-selection plays a part in the preponderance of liberal attitudes in the ivory tower, the authors found. But worrisomely, a hostile climate sometimes factors in as well.

In 2012, two Tilburg University researchers followed up with the subjects of Haidt’s informal political poll. They found that while many conservative respondents personally experienced hostility at work as a result of their politics, liberals claimed to be blithely unaware that any such discrimination occurred. Yet almost 40% of liberal respondents said they would be willing to discriminate against a conservative job applicant.

And none of this is at all academic.

Research into social psychology can have major implications for policy and society. On Tuesday, US president Barack Obama issued an executive order compelling government agencies to incorporate behavioral science findings into their programs.