Psychobabble: Liberal Bias?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Professor Jon Haidt believes he may have identified a new outgroup in the field of social psychology: that much maligned minority, the conservative. Speaking at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, as reported online in the New York Times, Haidt remarked that there was within the field of social psychology “a statistically impossible lack of diversity”.

To illustrate this, Haidt asked a convenience sample, his audience at the conference (approximately 1,000 in number), to raise their hands to indicate their political affiliation. Most of those present identified as liberals, with only a handful identifying themselves as centrists or libertarians, and only three as conservatives. This compared to polls that show that 40% of Americans consider themselves conservative, and 20% consider themselves liberal.

Haidt believes this is down to social psychologists as a group taking on “sacred values” which had lead them to evolve into a “tribal-moral community”, and that this may lead to the following situation.

“They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.”

He also suggests that his own experiences of the cohesiveness of this group implies that a chilling effect exists that might impact on the research and science that the group undertakes:

“Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”

The full transcript of the talk is available here, in which Haidt further defines the idea of the “sacred object”, and how it has aided human beings in becoming the only ultrasocial animal that doesn’t require everyone being a first degree relative to succeed.  Phil Tetlock, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, defines a sacred value as “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance …” Haidt expands on this:

If something is a sacred value, you can’t make utilitarian tradeoffs; you can’t think in a utilitarian way. You can’t sell a little piece of it for a lot of money, for example. Sacredness precludes tradeoffs. When sacred values are threatened, we turn into “intuitive theologians.” That is, we use our reasoning not to find the truth, but to find ways to defend what we hold sacred.

Haidt advances the idea that social psychology is a “tribal moral society” as it has taboos and danger zones (racism and sexism are given as examples), the contention being that there is a statistically unlikely proportion of liberals to conservatives, and that within the field, there exist “closeted conservatives”. As evidence for the latter point, he draws from the testimony received by email correspondence from two “non-liberal” graduate students. For the point on statistical significance, his evidence for the disparity between liberal and conservative social psychologists involved googling the phrase “social psychologist” with each of the political positions appended. I’m sure anyone can see that there are obvious issues with this contention. One reason could be that conservative social psychologists are closeted, as Haidt himself previously suggests. Another could be that liberal social psychologists are more in demand in the media to give comment which would artificially inflate their results. It is also possible that liberal psychologists feel the need to speak out more given they live and work in a country whose politics tend towards the conservative. I believe that there is a great deal of reason to cast doubt on two of Haidt’s assertions, although I agree that the first point is likely to be true. However, this, I suspect– and think Haidt would probably agree– only “damages or limits” research with respect to the outcome measures or values that social psychologists use to direct new research, not the objectivity or quality of the research itself.

A number of Haidt’s contemporaries provide comment under the article. Daniel Gilbert suggests:

What he says about social psychology is both interesting and true. Unfortunately, what’s interesting isn’t true and what’s true isn’t interesting.
… The true and uninteresting fact is that social psychology has many more liberals than conservatives and this may or may not be the result of an anti-conservative bias.

This is undoubtedly true. Gilbert suggests a number of alternative explanations: liberals may be more willing to work for peanuts, or they may be more open to new ideas and thus more suited to a life of research.

Alison Gopnik points out that Haidt’s examples do not relate to psychology, perhaps casting doubt on the idea that there is an implicit liberal censorship in the field, and a further critique is offered by Mark R. Leary, who makes the following very important point:

First, only a portion of social psychologists, and even fewer psychological scientists in general, study topics that have anything whatsoever to do with liberal values.  To those who are unfamiliar with social psychology, Haidt’s message could be interpreted to suggest that the entire field is tainted by liberal biases, but it’s difficult to imagine how moral or political values would contaminate most theorizing and research in social psychology

However, Paul Bloom, Stephen J. Heine, Lee Jussim and David Pizzaro offer varying degress of support to Haidt’s sentiments, and I encourage those interested to read their comments as well as those above, and come to their own conclusions. As Gilbert says at the conclusion of his critique:

Perhaps Jon’s beautifully crafted speech was merely meant to start a debate. But scientists start debates by raising questions, not by making up the answers.