Haidt on Political Bias Among Social Psychologists

Michael Giberson

Several days ago we discussed Jonathan Haidt’s research on libertarianism (see post). In his New York Times column, John Tierney discusses Haidt’s work on political bias among social psychologists:

Some of the world’s pre-eminent experts on bias discovered an unexpected form of it at their annual meeting. …

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

(Links in source.)

6 thoughts on “Haidt on Political Bias Among Social Psychologists

  1. Matt, thanks for the pointer though I don’t think that Levy was quite on target in his criticism. I’ve left a comment on the post.

    In general, I think Levy is criticizing Haidt for not writing a paper that Haidt wasn’t trying to write in the first place. Perhaps Levy believes that if you are going to raise these issues at all you must do the hard work of clearing all the brush away first. Haidt’s effort seems to have a somewhat different purpose, so he can skate over many hard questions as he gets on to his point.

    On the other hand, as I say in the comment, Haidt’s lack of engagement with some of the preliminaries of diagnosis leaves the viewer (or, at least, me) wondering whether his proposed solution would lead to the intended improvements. Or, rather, I’m not inclined to believe that his proposed “affirmative action for conservative social psychologists” will bring about the result he desires, and nothing in the presentation convinces me otherwise.

  2. I’m not sure we have the direction of causality right here… is psychology keeping conservatives out, or does psychological thinking alos encourage liberal thought? It seems to me that most economists are conservatives… are economists discriminating aginst liberals, or is there something about the way economists are taught to think that makes them conservative?

    I generally feel that economic thinking tends to make people conservative, and that psychological thinking tends to make people liberal. There is no need to take recourse in theories of discrimination in either case.

  3. I think there is a great deal of self-selection going on, where ‘confirmation bias’ leads people who lean conservative politically to economics or business school and people who lean liberal politically to psychology and sociology. Not that this is an overwhelming force, but significant. Conservatives that, against type, study psychology and sociology then find the ‘community values’ that dominate their fields as an additional repellent. (I happen to think economics is more open to political variety, but I’m probably not in a position to be honest judge.)

  4. I agree there is significant self-selection going on, but I also think there is significant shaping of attitudes within fields.

    Psychologists are taught to be empathic, and empathy is a liberal trait.

    Economists are taught (especially early on) that the market makes decisions that are in the best interests of society – a conservative belief.

    If there are more liberal economists than conservative psychologists it may be because there are few exceptions to the rule that empathy is a good thing, while there are many exceptions to the rule that market is always right.

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