Are Psychologists Too Politically Close-Minded Today?

And how this might affect our capacities to heal divides.

Posted Oct 30, 2020

Peter T. Coleman and Anthea Chan

In 2011, the psychologist Jonathon Haidt stunned a gathering of social psychologists at an SPSP conference in San Antonio by calling for a simple show of hands on political preferences during his address, and thereby empirically demonstrating the group’s overwhelming liberal bias. Eighty percent of the room self-identified as liberal, while only three lonely psychologists raised their hands as conservatives. Such bias within psychology is no small matter these days, as our country struggles with a degree of political polarization not seen since just after the U.S. Civil War. This public demonstration of bias triggered a period of self-reflection and debate within psychology on the consequences of the field’s dominant moral values.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Haidt’s critique came a few years after the publication of a bombshell 2003 article in Psychological Bulletin on Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, where the authors drew strong links between conservatives and off-putting personal traits like dogmatism, authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. In the paper, the authors characterize the core values of conservatism as “resistance to change” and “justification of inequality”, and thus implied that liberals held the opposite. Perhaps this essentialization of the core values of such a large swath of America’s voting public was simply a bridge too far.

In response, we conducted a study which sought to unpack these essentialist notions of conservatism and liberalism. We investigated how differences in the underlying value structures of Republican, Democrat and Independent voters affected the more or less tribalistic nature of their approach to politics.

We did this by first developing the Implicit Political Values Scale, which measures people’s unarticulated preferences for “good leaders” on four distinct dimensions: their capacities to a) provide stability, b) promote change, c) control decision-making, and d) encourage inclusive decision-making. In other words, rather than viewing political orientations in terms of the opposing values of stability-vs-change and control-vs-inclusion as, we approached them as independent values that reasonable people may hold simultaneously or in combination. Political tribalism was assessed in the study by measuring participants’ levels of ideological consistency, a measure developed by the Pew Research Center which gages the degree to which their attitudes on ten distinct policy issues converge to conform with their parties’ current stated preferences.

Our findings, from a study of over 400 Americans, are revealing. First, we found the four implicit political values to be orthogonal, having either insignificant or weak correlations with one another. This suggests that most of us tend not to see these values as opposing, but rather as independent or potentially complementary. Second, we found higher levels of more traditionally liberal values (preferences for leaders who promote change and are more inclusive) to predict significantly higher levels of ideological consistency than those who held more traditionally conservative values (preferences for stability and control over inclusion). In fact, currently Democrats are showing up as the most tightly ideologically consistent and Republicans as the least – which may reflect four years the Dems feeling particularly powerless in Washington. Nevertheless, this finding directly contradicts the more commonly accepted associations between conservative values and more narrow-minded conformity put forth in the 2003 article on conservatism.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we found that particular combinations of these previously-perceived-to-be opposing values – valuing orientations to change and stability in leaders and valuing their capacities for inclusion and control in decision making, to be the best predicters of lower levels of ideological consistency. In fact, having lower values on both change and stability was associated with the least consistency. In other words, voters – across party affiliations – who held lower-to-moderate combined value preferences for both change and stability, and for inclusion and control, where found to hold less tribal partisan views of the issues – or better put they were more discerning about important differences in the ten major policy issues.

The implications of these findings for psychology, and for America more generally, are straightforward. According to our results, the more liberal psychologists are these days, the more partisan and conforming they will be in their views on the major issues. This raises concerns about our capacities as a field to work constructively, empathetically and therapeutically with large segments of the population, or to help heal our current gaping political divide. Second, they suggest that perhaps viewing change and stability, and inclusion and control, not as static value differences between partisans, but as potentially reasonable responses to basic human dilemmas that we all must learn to navigate adaptively, may be the key. Recognizing the value and limitations inherent in both sides of what are often presented to us by politicians and the media as partisan litmus tests, may just be one way to help us begin to find our way out of these most divisive times.