The Situationist

Ideological Bias in Social Psychology?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 2, 2011

On January 27th, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt gave a provocative talk at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.  His presentation has since received a lot of press (including John Tierney’s New York Times article on the talk). Edge has posted a version of Haidt’s talk as well as a variety of responses (here).  Below, we’ve posted the response by Situationist Contributor, John Jost.

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Social psychology is not a “tribal-moral community” governed by “sacred values.” It is wide open to anyone who believes that we can use the scientific method to explain social behavior, regardless of their political beliefs. Nor is our “corner” of social science “broken” when it comes “race, gender, and class,” as Jonathan Haidt claimed in response to Paul Krugman. Rather, social psychologists have made cutting edge advances in understanding the subtle, implicit, nonconscious biases that perpetuate inequalities concerning race, gender, and class.

Haidt’s essay sows confusion; he misrepresents what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. By focusing on scientists’ personal beliefs rather than the quality of their work, Haidt perpetuates the myth that social scientific research simply exemplifies the ideological biases of the researchers. No doubt this energizes those who are eager to dismiss our findings. But polling firms are paid by clients, including political campaigns, and this fact neither determines nor invalidates the poll’s findings. Similarly, the personal beliefs of social scientists may (or may not) be one of many factors that affect the decision of what to study, but those beliefs are, at the end of the day, scientifically irrelevant.

This is because we, as a research community, take seriously the institutionalization of methodological safeguards against experimenter effects and other forms of bias. Any research program that is driven more by ideological axe-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity, because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers — all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them.

If we do concern ourselves with the results of Haidt’s armchair demography, we should ask honestly whether social scientists are too liberal or society is too conservative. After all, when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased. Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on. He does not even consider the possibility that research in social psychology (including research on implicit bias) bothers conservatives for the right reasons, namely that some of our conclusions are empirically demonstrable and yet at odds with certain conservative assumptions (e.g., that racial prejudice is a thing of the past). Surely in some cases raising cognitive dissonance is part of our professional mission.

We need science, now more than ever, to help us overcome ideological disputes rather than getting bogged down in them. We do not need conservatives to become conservative social psychologists any more than we need liberals to become liberal social psychologists. Our “community” still holds that policy preferences should follow from the data, not the other way around. Sadly, Haidt puts the ideological cart before the scientific horse. I simply cannot agree that — especially in this political era — it would be good for our science to reproduce the ideological stalemate and finger-pointing that has crippled our government and debased our journalism.

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Read the other responses here.

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4 Responses to “Ideological Bias in Social Psychology?”

  1. [...] The rest of The Situationist response to Haidt is here. [...]

  2. This response was lacking only a few go-for-the-jugular points I would have liked to see.

    First, I would expand on the concession that Haidt himself made by joking that the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology could very well be due to their being closed to new ideas that may threaten the status quo. And that post-Galileo, closed-mindedness is not a desirable trait in a scientist.

    Second, regarding his dubious claim that academia is dominated by the left, I would respond: economics. Then I’d say: “Economics. Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention – where you talking about some sort of left-wing bias in academia?”

    Back to seriousness: that is a good point. If academia is dominated by the left, we’d see economics departments that are a hell of a lot different than currently constituted.

    Third, Haidt’s evidence, such as it is, is composed solely of the disproportionate representation of leftists in social psychology. That, and a couple of anecdotal examples of conservative students who feel discriminated against. (I don’t need to tell the readership here that SJT would predict members of advantaged groups to be more sensitive to discrimination than members of disadvantaged groups.) I would move for dismissal of Haidt’s case on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

    The rest of what he had to say is prima facie plausible. No doubt, conservative students feel as uncomfortable expressing their political views among their disproportionately leftist colleagues as would vegetarians expressing their dietary choices among their co-workers at a meatpacking plant.

    But that is irrelevant. And here is where a trademark of the right – braggadocio, for lack of an English word – might come in handy. If social reality is being misrepresented by social psychologists owing to their “liberal” bias, then a forum for these conservative iconoclasts (oxymoron alert!) should be created. If political conservatives have theories that produce robust results in experimentation, they can be invited to publish their work anonymously on The Situationist, or a more fitting forum.

    Then again, I was probably irked far more than most by Haidt, and inspired to write this solely on account of his using Larry Summers in his argument – as a martyr. Yeah. One of the guys responsible for Russian life expectancy plunging by over a decade is a martyr – a *martyr*! – because some politically correct academics unfairly castigated him for making a supposition about genetic factors playing a role in determining female representation in… who-the-hell cares, the guy’s grasp of his own academic discipline is such that the implementation of his ideas resulted in millions of needless, preventable deaths!

    Fin.

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