The Decision Tree

Decision-making from all perspectives

Psychology Should Stay Away From Partisan Politics For About 15 Years

Psychology is on a Republican witch-hunt. It's bad science and bad strategy.

In case you have missed it, one of the big fads in academic psychology at the moment is the move to find the psychological predictors of political attitudes. 

This PT post was the article that motivated me to write this post. But it's just the worst of a large and growing literature. The field got it start with this paper  by Amodio and colleagues 5 years ago. Even Colin Firth is getting involved. Since then the field has bloomed and has even produced a popular science book. 

Admittedly, this I think is a brilliant scientific question. Clearly there are some factors that motivate some of us to become liberal and others to become conservative. It's poorly understood, and figuring out the patterns behind it is directly in psychology's wheelhouse. Come to think of it, it's unclear why this work wasn't done 50 years ago.

See All Stories In

What's Your Political Persuasion?

Liberals and conservatives do see the world differently

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But having said that, I think the way these studies are done and publicized is deeply troubling. Generally, these studies find that Republicans or conservatives have some psycholgical defect that causes their condition. Or they find that conversative is associated with some trait that is bad. The studies are anti-conservative. That's bad science and it's bad strategy. 

[And in the spirit of disclosure, I will state I am a garden variety academic liberal who voted straight Democratic ticket in '08 and will do so again in '12.]  

Let me start with strategy.  Psychology research is generously funded by the government. Not just NIH dollars, but student loans, tax deductions for universities, and land grants. This money really truly needs to serve everyone. The moment that conservative students feel unwelcome in the psychology department is the start of the end of public funding for psychology. Taxpayers are about half liberal and half conservative, and are constantly looking for programs to cut in order to reduce taxes. Colleges are under a ton of scrutiny right now for over-charging. Even if those charges are inaccurate, now's a particularly bad time to make waves. If you don't believe me, look at what's happening right now with political science.  

I'd be more tolerant of these risky moves if they were supported by science. But when I read these studies, it just doesn't seem fair. These scientists aren't checking their biases at the door, like good scientists should. They are doing quick and dirty studies that confirm their own biases. If I saw even a few studies that made conservatives look better than liberals, I might think real science was going on. 

For example, let's look at the grandfather of these studies, Amodio's 2007 paper. He and his colleagues report that "greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern". Liberals are cognitively flexible! Conservatives are are rigid! But greater conflict related anterior cingulate activity could also mean enhanced fear. Liberals are more motivated by fear! doesn't have the same sex appeal because it doesn't fit into our stereotypes. [For more on anterior cingulate and bad politics, see my previous post here

Part of the problem is that these research results have what journalists call sex appeal, so they make it to the newspaper all the time. And when they do, they have to be simplified and sculpted to appeal to readers. Journalists aren't interested in nuance; they need a hook. And generally the story turns into 'republicans have this problem'. This isn't journalism's fault. The journalists just pick up on the biases in the psychologist's work. 

People doing this kind of research are playing with live ammo. They need to manage the way their research is presented to the public more carefully. But more than that, they need to make sure they aren't just producing results that satisfy their own stereotypes about convservatives. 

My suggestion is that psychologists who are truly interested in this topic spend about 15 years doing the boring and solid background work that will provide the foundation for a real psychology of political science. If they really believe in it, they should do it without fawning media support. 

And they should make a point of consulting with and communicating frequently with real true conservatives. This might make these psychologists less biased. And more cognitively flexible. 

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

more...

Subscribe to The Decision Tree

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.