Social psychologist Jon Haidt knows how to stir up a controversy. He published a widely cited paper in which he argued that people’s moral judgments are not based on logic, but are instead stories we make up to justify our automatic gut feelings. To prove his point, Haidt asked readers to consider a brother and sister who are on college break in France and decide it would be interesting and fun to make love to one another. Although they enjoyed it, and felt it brought them closer, they decide not to do it again. Was it alright? Haidt notes that people typically respond by saying it was wrong, and then searching for reasons why, most of which are already negated in the story (although the story explicitly states that there was no emotional damage, and that there was no danger of pregnancy, people explain their negative reaction as based on potential emotional damage or genetic dangers of inbreeding, for example).
Haidt has recently started another controversy that has made the pages of the New York Times, and also gotten fellow psychologists including Harvard’s Dan Gilbert and Yale’s Paul Bloom arguing with one another. The controversy started when Haidt gave one of the opening talks at the most recent meetings of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (the field’s largest conference, which draws several thousand researchers from around the world). When Haidt asked the members of the audience, who numbered over 1000, to raise their hands if they considered themselves liberal or left of center, 80 to 90 percent of the social psychologists shot their hands up. How many were conservative or right of center? It was easier to count: Only 3 hands went up. Haidt made a quick estimate that the liberal to conservative bias in the field is about 266 to 1.
In fact, the speaker who preceded Haidt had stated: “I’m a good liberal Democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know.” In an earlier blog, I openly admitted that I’m a liberal, and often annoyingly righteous about it. There are interesting questions about why so many psychologists, like so many academics in general, are liberals. Maybe it’s because, as I suggested in an earlier posting, higher education selects for liberals in several ways. Dan Gilbert suggests that perhaps: “Liberals may be more interested in new ideas, more willing to work for peanuts, or just more intelligent.” Haidt acknowledges that there are multiple reasons for this correlation, but he also suggests that psychology actively discriminates against anyone who expresses conservative ideas. Yes, psychologists—the very people who get up in arms whenever anyone makes a joke or casual remark that might create a “hostile work environment” for a woman or ethnic minority—themselves create a hostile work environment for conservatives. Indeed, Haidt quotes two conservative graduate students who have felt compelled to keep their conservative opinions undercover—to remain politically “in the closet.”
UC Riverside’s David Funder was the other speaker who Haidt teased for his offhand comment about being a “good liberal Democrat.” When I queried Funder about Haidt’s talk, he had this to say: “I didn't take offense—I really did think he raised some valid points.” As Funder observes, psychologists often treat conservative opinions as “something akin to mental illness,” and he praises Haidt for exploring the values underlying that world view. Funder notes that Haidt has set himself a task that is: “akin to an anthropologist who finds a new tribe of head-hunters seeking to explain the real attractions of severing and boiling human heads. But (Haidt’s) analysis is compelling, and to an academic liberal (yes, including such as myself [Funder]) truly eye-opening. That is, if one's eyes are in fact capable of being opened. One of the interesting and discouraging facts that Haidt uncovered in the first wave of his work is that many academics find contrary points of view easier to demonize (at worst) or patronize (at best) rather than take seriously.”
Haidt attributes psychology’s anti-conservative bias to the general human tendency to form “tribal moral communities.” When moral feelings are activated, certain topics become sacred, and others sacrilegious. A psychologist asking questions about the biological bases of gender differences, or of race differences, for example, is akin to asking “What’s a fair price to be allowed to burn a Bible, or urinate on the American flag?” Like the question about incest, these are simply not questions one ought to ask.
Most controversially, Haidt suggested a sort of “affirmative action for conservatives,” proposing that the field of social psychology strive to become 10 percent conservative by 2020. I was about to ask whether we’d be willing to lower the incoming test scores for those with underrepresented political opinions, but a neo-Reaganite might observe “There you go again.”
For more information on this controversy, see:
The bright future of post-partisan psychology. Edge, Feb. 9, 2011. Has a transcript of Haidt’s talk, as well as reactions from other psychologists.
Jon Haidt’s homepage. Here you’ll find Haidt’s powerpoints, and can listen to his talk. You can also see links to reactions by liberal journalists, and Haidt’s reactions to those reactions.