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Post-Partisan Social Psychology

Resources for examining the issue of political partisanship in social psychology, and in the social sciences more generally

On January 27, 2011, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology,

on the need for ideological diversity in social psychology, and on benefits such diversity would bring to our science.


On February 8, John Tierney wrote an article for the New York Times describing the talk and relating it to other events

in the scientific community, titled “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within.” The article has provoked a great deal of discussion.


You can see the talk here. (Press the play button, then hit the "full screen" icon in the lower right, the little square within a square)

If the talk doesn't play here, you can watch it here.



You can see a full transcript of the talk here, and you can download the original powerpoint files here, or see the talk on Vimeo here.

You can listen to my interview on NPR, Talk of the Nation (2/15/11), here.


You can see fairly definitive evidence of the claims I made in my talk here--a new study by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers that shows that 1) the best estimate we have of conservatives in social psych is 6% (presumably almost all grad students); 2) there really is a hostile climate for conservatives, and 3) conservatives are likely to face active discrimination when they try to publish or apply for grants or jobs. The Inbar & Lammers findings are explained in Inside Higher Ed, and on many blog posts such as Assoc. for Psych Science.


THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALIFICATION that I should have added to my talk, when it was released to the world beyond social psychology is this: The concerns I raise here are not relevant to the great majority of research done by social psychologists. The problem of "tribalism" affects research only in areas related to sacred values,  such as race and gender, and also the areas that I study--moral and political psychology. And even in the affected areas, very few studies are flawed, in my opinion. The problem is rather that the sum total of research on a topic does not address the full range of questions that would be asked, and psychological mechanisms that would be investigated, if our field contained more ideological diversity.


I) Here you can find some commentary and criticism.

The main debate among scientists occurred at (click on "the reality club" to see the commentaries)

The most entertaining debate occurred with Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, the chairman of the philosophy department at CUNY-Lehman, who accused me of academic misconduct.

Many of my favorite liberal commentators have crticized me:


--Paul Krugman, on his NYT blog: Ideas are not the same as race. I responded to Krugman here.

--Eric Alterman, at Huffington Post and Center for American Progrees: "The 'Problem' of Liberal Academics, Again."

--Jonathan Chait, at The New Republic: "Why are professors Democrats?"


All three seem to have read the Tierney article but not seen my talk, so they don't know that the issue of underrepresentation was just one part of my larger argument about the damage to science when dissent disappears and a tribal moral community forms. But Chait did visit this page and then, in a later post, he acknowledged that discrimination against conservatives is a real problem. Krugman, in contrast, expanded his rebuttal in a post on Feb 24: Does Academia Discriminate Against Conservatives? Unlikely. I urge Prof. Krugman to watch my talk and then read these accounts from victims of discrimination, to better understand the way a hostile climate works. And then look at the actual data clearly showing discrimination.


One of the most interesting aspects of the controversy has been the vitriol shown in the comments on blog posts about my talk. Many comments basically say: "There's no discrimination against conservatives, and those stupid, narrow-minded creationists could never be scientists anyway."

James Taranto, at the Wall St. Journal, analyzed the most-recommended comments on Tierney's NYT article and found the reasoning to be just the sort of blatant and nasty stereotyping (of conservatives) that is so roundly comdemned when applied to any other group. (Click here, then scroll down one screen to "Newspaper as echo chamber".)

Megan McArdle, at The Atlantic, wrote a balanced blog post on the controversy: Unbiasing Academia. But she was shocked by the vehemence of many liberal commenters on that post. She then wrote a second post (What Does Bias Look Like?) in which she takes these commenters to task. This is a deep and nuanced examination of the nature of biased thinking. For example, she notes that many of the commenters select the narrowest possible definition of bias, use it to acquit their side of bias, and then go on to blame the victims of the bias for deserving the bias. She notes that this is the same rhetorical strategy normally used to deny and then justify racism. As she puts it: "So while in theory, it's true that you can't simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you've identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn't because of bias, but because the people they've excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ's . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible."


Here are some additional essays and blog posts---some supportive, some critical:

Peter Wood, The Chronicle of Higher Education: De-Tribalizing Academe. Wood truly and deeply understood my talk, and presented my ideas more elegantly than I did. He disagrees with my call for affirmative action, but that is because he assumed I was advocating quotas and set-asides. I was not. I was advocating exactly the same affirmative action measures we take for the other "underrepresented" groups -- greater outreach, fastidious efforts to make the climate welcoming, and a mild boost during admissions for people who are in the pool of acceptable applicants and who would bring the benefit of a much needed perspective. I mentioned the figure 10% not as a quota, but as a goal, at which point we could end affirmative action efforts.

Clive Crook, The Atlantic: Why Intellectuals are Not Conservatives
Martin Robbins, Liberal Bias: Science Writing's elephant in the room?
Taylor Burns, Scitable (at A More Perfect Science
Neil Levy, Practical Ethics (Oxford U.) Affirmative Action in Social Psychology?
OllieGarkey, Daily Kos, Liberal bias in academia? Perhaps. Problem? No.
Doug Kenrick, Psychology Today Blog, Does Psychology Discriminate Against Political Conservatives?
Will Wilkinson, Prefrontal Nudity (at The Case of the Missing Conservative Social Psychologists
Jose Duarte, a grad student in social psych, posted this commentary about the controversy, giving an example of how partisanship may lower the bar for research that reaches favored conclusions.
Russell Nieli, Minding the Campus: A double shock to liberal professors.
Dave Frame, Practical Ethics Blog: The diversity that dare not speak its name.






II) Here you can find some papers and links that may be helpful if you want to understand the issues involved,

including whether or not there really is a problem, and if so, what can be done about it.

A) Several people have called attention to these problems before, most notably:
--Singer (1971) Toward a psychology of science. American Psychologist. Warned that the intrusion of bias may be an important source of inefficiency in the sciences.
--Richard Redding (2001) Sociopolitical Diversity in Psychology. American Psychologist.
--David Horowitz (2004) In defense of intellectual diversity. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
--Steven Pinker (2007) In defense of dangerous ideas Essay published on originally.

Phil Tetlock and Linda Skitka have written several papers on the problem of ideological bias, including concrete advice on how to guard against it. See in particular:
--Mullen, Bauman & Skitka (2003) Avoiding the pitfalls of politicized psychology.
--Tetlock (1994). Political psychology or politicized psychology: Is the road to scientific hell paved with good moral intentions?
--Tetlock & Mitchell (1993). Liberal and conservative approaches to justice: Conflicting psychological portraits.


B) There is some good research on why professors tend to be liberal. See, for example:

--Gross & Simmons (2007) The social and political views of American professors. Develops an argument that the imbalance is mostly due to self-selection. But also reports that "Our survey shows that conservative professors, whether they are outspoken or not, register high levels of dissatisfaction with the current university environment in terms of its political valence. More surprising, perhaps, a high proportion of moderates do so as well, at least in certain respects" (p. 68).
--Fosse & Gross (2010) Why are professors liberal? Unpublished working paper. Further development of a self-selection theory.
--Fosse, Freese, & Gross (2011), Political liberalism and graduate school attendance: A longitudinal analysis. [link to come]
--Gross & Cheng (in press), Explaining professors' politics: An indirect test of the self-selection hypothesis.
--Cardiff & Klein (2005), Faculty partisan affiliations in all disciplines: A voter-registration study. Critical Review.
--Klein & Stern (2009). Groupthink in Academia: Majoritarian departmental politics and the professional pyramid. The Independent Review.

Neil Gross and his colleagues in particular have demonstrated that discrimination is not "the main cause" of the ideological imbalance; self-selection is the main cause. I fully agree. As I said in my talk: "there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate." My point was not that discrimination is the MAIN cause of underrepresentation. My point was that there is an underrepresentation of conservatives for many reasons, but once the percentage of conservatives drops below some threshhold, we get the predictable problems of a large majority interacting with a small and disliked minority. Eventually liberals begin to assume that everyone around them shares their political views. At that point, "locker room talk" becomes much more public, the climate becomes more hostile toward non-liberals, and the few remaining non-liberals must either hide their views, leave the field, or endure criticism and social exclusion.

C) Is there any evidence of discrimination against non-liberals in academe, beyond the numerical disparities? Yes. I suggest thinking about the question in three steps:

1) It's likely in theory. From everything we know about group dynamics and motivated reasoning, we should expect people to use different standards when evaluating members of a disliked minority outgroup, while believing that they are being fair minded. People find evidence for whatever conclusion they want to reach (see Haidt, 2001), so reviewers can easily find reasons to reject manuscripts or grant proposals or job candidates that they don't like (see Mahoney, 1977).

2) Biased evaluations of non-liberal research have been demonstrated experimentally:
Abramowitz, Gomes, & Abramowitz (1975) asked liberal and non-liberal research psychologists to rate the suitability of a manuscript for publication. The manuscript purported to demonstrate that a group of leftist political activists were mentally healthier, or unhealthier, than a comparison group of campus non-activists. When the activists were said to be healthier, liberal reviewers rated the manuscript as more publishable. They even rated the statistical analyses as being more adequate.
--Ceci, Peters, & Plotkin (1985), submitted research proposals to 150 Internal Review Boards (the boards that approve the ethics of each study done at a university). Proposals to investigate "reverse discrimination" were approved only half as often as otherwise identical proposals to investigate discrimination.
--Munro, Lasane, & Leary (2010), found that when judging college admissions folders, partisans weighed more heavily whichever feature (grades or recommendations) let them select the applicant who shared their ideology. (Everyone can find a reason to justify their own biased actions.)

3) Controlling for productivity, conservatives fare worse in hiring. The most direct possible evidence of ideological discrimination would be a demonstration that conservative academics are "underemployed" relative to their qualifications. The only study that has looked for such an effect found it: Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte (2005) analyzed surveys of the professoriate from the 1960s through the 2000s, and reached two important conclusions:

A) There ideological imbalance was not bad until the mid 1980s [which shows that there is nothing eternal about liberal pre-eminence in academe] but academe became much more liberal after that. The authors conclude: "In conjunction with other recent studies, our findings suggest strongly that a leftward shift has occurred on college campuses in recent years, to the extent that political conservatives have become an endangered species in some departments." Their data shows that English, performing arts, psychology, fine arts, and religion departments now have the highest percentages of liberals.

B) A regression analysis using research productivity, political attitudes, and a host of demographic variables to predict the prestige of the university that employed each professor found that by far the best predictor of prestige is research productivity (i.e., academe is largely a meritocracy). But the second best predictor was political attitudes (being a conservative reduced one's prospects), followed by being female or a religious Christian (both reduced one's prospects). Being Black, gay, or married made no difference. The authors conclude: "multivariate analysis of the available data show that even after taking into account the effects of academic achievement, along with many other individual characteristics, conservatives and Republicans taught at lower quality schools than did liberals and Democrats."

Of course it's difficult to establish causality in the real world, but when you have an effect that is strongly predicted by theory, found in the lab, and found in correlational data using real-world outcomes, well, what more could you ask for? As an intuitionist, I believe there IS something more that we need, and that is a moment of empathy or imagination that makes the existence of a hostile climate seem intuitively plausible. To provide an intuitive understanding of the situation, I have put together excerpts from some of the dozens of emails I have received since my talk. Please see this blog post. These are real people.  

IF YOU KNOW OF ANY EXPERIMENTS OR SURVEYS THAT HAVE FAILED TO FIND EVIDENCE of bias, please send me the links; I want to post evidence on both sides, and can't be trusted to seek out evidence that goes against my thesis. (See next section)

STOP THE PRESSES, the most definitive possible evidence arrived in Feb. 2012. A survey of social psychologists by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers found that conservatives strongly perceive a hostile climate, and liberals admit that they discriminate against conservatives, in reviewing papers and grants, and in choosing whom to hire. The situation is much worse than I had thought. I had thought that the problem was mostly hostile climate leading conservatives to voluntarily leave the field. But now it apppears that it's not just voluntary. The majority actively slams doors on the minority. Here's the abstract:

A lack of political diversity in social and personality psychology is said to lead to a number of pernicious outcomes, including biased research and active discrimination against conservatives. In two studies, we investigate the actual and perceived political ideology of a large sample (Study 1: N = 508; Study 2: N = 292) of social and personality psychologists. We find that there is more diversity of political opinion than is often assumed; conservatives are a substantial minority among social and personality psychologists. Second, we find that respondents significantly underestimate the proportion of conservatives among their colleagues. Third, we find that conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, we find that conservatives are right to do so. In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.


Other relevant work:
--McCoun (1998), Biases in the interpretation and use of research results. Annual Review of Psychology.
--Tetlock (1994) Political psychology or politicized psychology: Is the road to scientific hell paved with good moral intentions? Political Psychology.
--See this edited volume, which provides a comprehensive overview of the problem from a conservative perspective (and isn't that essential for deciding whether there's a problem?): Hess, Maranto, & Redding (2009). The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms. (Here's a link to the full PDF text of the book.) In particular, see Ch.3, "Left pipeline: Why conservatives don't get doctorates," by Woessner & Kelly-Woessner. Analyzes data from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute. Shows that conservative college students don't get lower grades than liberals. But conservative undergrads report less-close relationships to faculty, and much less satisfaction wtih their humanities and social science classes (in contrast to science courses, which they enjoy more than do liberals).


D) Is there any evidence AGAINST the claim that there is either discrimination or hostile climate?

Neil Gross and his colleagues just released two studies which show that self selection is the "main cause" of the ideological imbalance. [I fully agree.] You can read a summary of the two studie here. The most interesting one was a field experiment in which they sent emails to directors of graduate studies in several fields, purporting to be from an undergraduate asking for more information about the program. A third of the emails mentioned that the applicant had worked on the Obama campaign, a third mentioned having worked on the McCain campaign, and a third gave no hint of political leanings. The researchers coded the promptness and warmth of the emailed replies, and found no differences among the conditions. This is indeed a failure to find discrimination or hostile climate. [But it should be noted that this was not a likely place to find such effects: the director of grad studies is inundated with email requests, and is likely to have fairly standardized responses and response procedures. The important process to examine is when applications come in and faculty members must decide "do I want to work with this person for the next 6 years?"]
--Fosse, Gross, and Ma (2011), Political Bias in the Graduate Admissions Process: A field experiment.


E) Is there any evidence that conservatives are less intelligent than liberals, as is charged in so many of the comments critical of my talk? The evidence is mixed. Most studies have found that there is a small correlation, with conservatives lower (particularly when conservatism is measured as "right wing authoritarianism"; see Heaven, Ciarocci, & Leeson, 2011). A few studies have found no difference, or conservatives higher. I think the complexities of the question are best resolved by this paper (Kemmelmeier, 2008), which shows that social conservatism correlates with lower test scores, but free-market conservatism correlates with higher test scores. (Nobody ever calls libertarians dumb.) This view is consistent with a working paper by Morton, Tyran, and Wengstrom that examines the relationships among intelligence, personality, income, and ideology in a European sample. They note that intelligence makes people wealthier, and wealth makes people move rightward. This indirect effect of wealth explains their finding that right-wing ideology and IQ were positively correlated. This view is consistent with this analysis, which finds that being a Republican, but not being a conservative, predicts higher scientific literacy on the GSS.

And even if it is true that social conservatives are less intelligent than social liberals, people should bear in mind that 1) the regression coefficients found by Kemmelmeier for conservatism are generally smaller than those found for race and sex, and 2) My argument is not just about the absence of conservatives; it's about the near absence of non-liberals. Do my critics want to say that centrists and moderates --who outnumber liberals 2 to 1 in the USA -- aren't smart enough to become professors?


--The same problems plague the legal academy. See this conference on the shortage of intellectual diversity in law schools, held at Harvard Law School. And see this supportive text sent in by the Dean of the law school, Martha Minow.

--You can map out your own "moral matrix" at See especially the "sacredness survey"

--Why did the ideological imbalance get so severe in the 1980s? See this NYT article suggesting a generational change based on Gross and Simmons' work

A few key papers I have referred to in interviews:

1) Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (in press, BBS). "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory." [crucial for understanding why as individuals we are so hobbled by the "confirmation bias," and why we need others with different ideas to find flaws in our arguments]

2) Muller, J. (1996) What is conservative social and political thought? [This is the article that first opened my mind to conservatism and started my gradual move to the center. Muller argues on practical, often utilitarian grounds that conservative principles promote human flourishing]




III) Here are a few points I wish my critics would keep in mind:

1) I am not concerned about the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology, just as I am not concerned about the underrepresentation of women or minorities in any occupation. As I said in my talk, "there are many reasons why conservatives would be underrepresented in social psychology, and most of them have nothing to do with discrimination or hostile climate." I am concerned about two things: First: Discrimination. If conservatives, women, or minority group members are being discriminated against, it is wrong and it should stop. And that includes the creation of hostile climates, which discourage students from entering fields in the first place. Second, I'm concerned about the absence of valuable perspectives from occupations that need multiple perspectives. When a group with a unique perspective drops below some threshhold, members of the majority group begin to assume that everyone around them shares their pespective. They begin to espouse their moral values more openly (i.e., "locker room talk"), and the small number of minority-group members shrinks even further or retreats to the closet. This is what (I claim) has happened in social psychology (and in many academic fields). Most groups and institutions don't need moral diversity. Diversity disrupts group cohesion and effectiveness. But in science, our goal is not cohesion, it is finding the truth, and if moral diversity will help us to disrupt the forcefield and shut down groupthink, then it will help us to do better science. This is why I called for affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology. (I mentioned the figure of 10% in my talk not as a quota but as a target. If the day ever comes when 10% of social psychologists are conservative, or perhaps just non-liberal, then we can probably relax our efforts to diversify the field.)

--For an analysis of how the same dynamic is at work in Hollywood, see this preview of Shapiro (2011) Primetime Propaganda. Hollywood executives engaged in liberal "locker room talk" with Shapiro, with a tape recorder running, because they assumed, mistakenly, that he (like everyone else in Hollywood) was a liberal.
--For an analysis of the same dynamic at work in law schools, see this review of Olson (2011) Schools for Misrule. But note that the legal professoriate is not entirely liberal, and the presence of a vocal minority of conservatives allows alternative ideas to emerge and sometimes spread, even among liberals. This is my hope for social psychology. With 10% conservatives, the most harmful effects of groupthink would be largely vanquished.

2) I do not favor diversity for the sake of diversity. I do not think we need to get more Nazis, child molesters, and creationists into social psychology just because they are currently underrepresented (see #1, above). For Nazis and child molesters, discrimination is justified. I am not a moral relativist. These people harm, or advocate harm, to others. As for creationists, their identity is defined by its opposition to science as a fully naturalistic undertaking. They are not committed to science, they are committed to a theological conception of the universe, and they want to use science to support that conception. I think they do not belong in science, just as I believe social justice activists don't belong in science. Anyone who gets into science in order to support a passionately held moral worldview is at high risk of doing shoddy work. Graduate admissions committees, and faculty hiring committees, should indeed discriminate against moral activists of all stripes. (See my 2001 paper, The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail, on the way that moral intuitions drive reasoning.)


3) For anyone who thinks that Larry Summers did something bad, wrong, or irresponsible, please read the full transcript of his remarks. Don't go by what you read secondhand. Note the many qualifications and nuances in his presentation. Note in particular that he offers three hypotheses for the underrepresentation of women in science. He says that the largest factor is probably his first hypothesis, which is not morally controversial. I described his second hypothesis, which is the one that got him into trouble, about the variance in IQ scores, But Summers was right about this.. Please read what he said, and decide for yourself whether an academic--even a university president--should be punished for saying what he said. Disagreement is fine, but calls for resignation? That's moralistic tribalism.


4) I am not a conservative. I have no dog in this fight, no axe to grind. I was a liberal Democrat from my early teens until the Fall of 2010. I stopped calling myself a liberal while writing The Righteous Mind. I now see both sides of the spectrum as having valid moral concerns, and as having good ideas about how to run a humane society. (I distinguish between conservatism, which I admire, and the Republican Party, which I dislike for its moralistic extremism, and for its hypocrisy in running up a massive debt with tax cuts and unfunded wars and then pretending that our debt crisis is not their fault.) So now I am a centrist. My goal in the partisanship debate is not to argue for one side or the other. My goal is to disrupt the moral forcefield that turns on when conservatives disappear from a community of social scientists.


5) Statistical differences among groups do not demonstrate discrimination, unless you want them to. Now that I've been criticized so often by liberals for arguing that the underrepresentation of conservatives by a factor of 100 or more does not indicate that there's any kind of discrimination, I have become sensitized to the frequency with which liberals point to such statistical disparities to show discrimination against the groups they care about. For example, here is a NYT article that consists of nothing but statistics about how much more often Black and Hispanic students are disciplined or suspended than White students. Sometimes the rate is two or even three times as high, and this is argued to be a major civil rights issue. Nowhere is the hypothesis entertained that there could be actual differences in behavior between ethnic groups. Statistical differences in outcomes are only explained away as resulting from real differences in behavior or ability when people endorse the prejudice in question.



Last updated April 16, 2013

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