Are social psychologists biased against conservatives? A simple check for ideological bias.

Maria Konnikova has an article in the New Yorker on whether there is bias in social psychology against conservatives.  One of the people calling attention to the issue is Jonathan Haidt, whose work my long time readers will know I’m generally a fan of.

The core issue that Haidt is calling attention to is the paucity of conservatives in the field, and that this has effects on what is researched and in how that research is conducted.  Social psychology seems to be an extreme case of the situation in most of the sciences (with the possible exception of economics).

As a liberal and a Democrat, I have to admit to being somewhat skeptical of this issue.  A strong part of me wants to point out that few conservatives place much value in social psychology, so blaming the field for not having many of them seems somewhat backwards.  Again, this seems to be a particularly extreme case for the situation in most sciences.  I also wonder how many liberals there are in police departments, the military, or in financial professions.  Certain fields seem to attract certain types of people.

But then I also have to admit that this may simply be my own biases kicking in.  And given the nature of questions explored by social psychology, it probably makes sense for them to exert particular effort not to be biased.  Indeed, even if there really isn’t a systematic bias in the field, it makes sense to avoid the appearance of one, if for no other reason than to head off threats to their funding.  (A serious threat given recent Republican attempts to cut funding for social science programs.)

Along those lines, Konnikova mentions a technique for evaluating whether a question or statement is biased that sounds so simple and useful that I think I’ll quote it here:

There’s a simple test of whether a question is objective or ideologically loaded. It’s what, in 1994, the political psychologist Phil Tetlock termed the turnabout test: imagine the opposite of your question. If it sounds loaded, your original phrase probably is, too. Consequently, if the premise of a study is to look at something like the “denial of the irrationality of many religious beliefs,” turn it around to be “the denial of the benefits of church attendance.” Something like the “denial of the economic inequality caused by a strong concentration of wealth” becomes the “denial of the benefits of free-market capitalism.” The point isn’t that researchers need more conservative values. It’s that they need to avoid value-driven formulations in the first place if they are looking to get an objective assessment of a question.

Of course, the trick is remembering to do this simple mental reversal for any question we’re considering or evaluating.  But for any of us interested in understanding social, psychological, historical, or similar types of issues, it’s probably a good habit to get into.

10 thoughts on “Are social psychologists biased against conservatives? A simple check for ideological bias.

  1. I think there’s a genuine correlation between education and dealing with the real world and the tendency to be liberal or progressive. Conservatism requires a certain insularity — it seeks to resist change. Progressives seek change and new ideas. Both views are important to balance each other, but they are really different ways of looking at life. But teachers, scientists, artists, journalists… their whole approach to life tends towards the progressive.

    The media, for example. I think it does tend to be hugely left-biased. But that’s not due to some plot — no overlords driving a liberal agenda. It’s just that people in that business tend to have seen a lot, and it’s opened their minds. An open mind — almost by definition — is a progressive mind.

    One problem is that there’s no real conservative voice anymore — which is unfortunate. The “Right” has shrunk down to a tumorous mass of white, wealthy, homo-phobic science haters who are easy to poke fun at. I have friends who used to be “Republican” — who now identify “Democrat” — but whose views didn’t change over the years — their party’s did.

    It’s not a level playing field right now. It’s really hard to not be biased!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree that conservatism and insularity go hand in hand, but living in the deep south, I do know many educated conservatives, although they don’t tend to be in the sciences or humanities (with the exception of American history) but in fields like engineering, business, or some other discipline that doesn’t necessarily challenge their worldview.


  2. Thanks ‘SAP’, I was familiar with Haidt’s argument but hadn’t read the Edge conversation that Konnikova links to in her first sentence. I’ll have to give the forthcoming paper she linked to a read as well.

    I did find Jennifer Jacquet’s comment in the Edge conversation interesting where she proposed that:

    “There are very few conservatives in social psychology possibly not because it’s a hostile environment but because the field of social psychology self-selects for liberals and might even create them (e.g., if you learn/accept through the work in social psychology that people are largely a product of their environment, it makes it hard to then support political strategies that further disadvantage the poor).”

    Given some of the letters that Haidt has compiled though … I don’t know – it’ll certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out. I do think that to be human is to be biased. It’s simply part of our operating system.


    1. Thanks amanimal. I think a key question is, are there conservatives not going into social psychology because they perceive the field is hopelessly biased against them? I think it’s a question that field has to explore, probably more so than most sciences, because of what it studies. Although I would think sociology would have similar concerns.

      A second closely related question, of conservatives who do go into the field, how many remain conservative (at least socially conservative)? In other words, are social psychology’s results the result of liberal ideology, or is the liberal ideology the result of its results? The direction of causality seems crucial.

      I definitely agree that bias is inescapable. It can be protected against in the design of a study (science is constantly finding new ways to do that), but it’s tough to protect against when deciding what will be studied.


      1. I only read the first several sentences of the first several letters Haidt compiled that Konnikova linked to, but it certainly sounds as though those individuals were discouraged. Then again, as Jennifer Jacquet also noted:

        “… the university environment can be one-dimensional.”

        Good questions though I think there’s quite a bit of science beyond social psychology that tells us we’re largely, if not entirely, the products of our biology and environments. No doubt there’s a broad spectrum of conservatism out there, but my perception is that that concept in itself would be less than agreeable to most of those holding a more conservative viewpoint. Maybe I’m over-generalizing?


          1. Perhaps I phrased that poorly – what I meant to convey was that my impression is that those of a more conservative POV are less likely to agree with the proposal that we are the products of our biology and environments, a basic staple of, not only social psychology, but of a naturalistic POV in general, no?


        1. Ah, sorry, I misunderstood. I think you’re right.

          There are thoughtful conservatives who acknowledge the role of biology and environment, but feel that it’s impractical to be preoccupied by them. However I suspect many (if not most) of them see that concept as liberal mumbo jumbo designed to excuse irresponsibility.

          Liked by 1 person

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