Do Politics Predict Belief in Evolutionary Psychology?

A new paper said "Yes" and a scientific Twitter storm ensued.

Posted Mar 06, 2019

Guest post by Bill von Hippel, George Richardson, and David Buss

Rodin, Wikimedia Commons
The Thinker at the Gates of Hell
Source: Rodin, Wikimedia Commons

Do strong emotional responses to our article indicate that we hit a nerve or that our colleagues are baffled by our ineptitude?

Recently we (Buss & von Hippel, 2018; von Hippel & Buss, 2017) published a survey of over 300 members of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology (one of the main professional organizations for social psychology) regarding their attitudes toward evolutionary psychology. We suggested that many social psychologists dismiss evolutionary psychology because their left-leaning orientation leads them to conceive of the mind as a blank slate at birth and this viewpoint is inconsistent with the idea of evolved attitudes and preferences. We suggested that this problem is further compounded by evolved tendencies to be more focused on persuasion than truth-seeking and to form and maintain coalitions that compete with each other.

We intended for the article to be provocative, but we didn’t anticipate the controversy it would create. The ensuing twitterstorm included a fair bit of criticism, some of which was on target (e.g., we regret that some of our questions were not better constructed). Nonetheless, it struck us that some of the criticism of our paper might be evidence for our fundamental point—that our evolved psychology includes adaptations to form and defend one’s coalition, which interferes with a dispassionate inquiry into our evolved psychology.

Consider what appears to be the first salvo:

Eiko Fried
Source: Eiko Fried

These graphs, drawn directly from our paper, show that nearly all social psychologists accept evolutionary theory and reject the possibility that evolutionary theory only applies to nonhuman animals. As Eiko seemed to be suggesting, data don’t get much clearer than that, and they certainly don’t give the impression of a bias against evolutionary theory.

This initial twitter-salvo was followed immediately by tweets like the following:

Stephen Reicher
Source: Stephen Reicher

Scientists are fallible, selves very much included, and perhaps our paper is indeed bad science that should be condemned by all.

But perhaps not.

It wasn’t long before someone pointed out that we had reported additional data regarding social psychologists’ acceptance of evolutionary theory:

Source: SweetMeteor'ODeath

In the words of our colleague Lee Jussim (the proper owner of this blog):

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

This graph in Lee’s tweet, again taken directly from our paper, raises the possibility that many social psychologists are deeply unsure about the basic premise of evolutionary psychology—the idea of the mind containing psychological adaptations in the form of attitudes and preferences. We did not ask if the human mind is a tabula rasa or blank slate, but one might argue that denying that it contains such psychological adaptations is largely synonymous with the implicit endorsement of a blank slate.

Nonetheless, many people were not convinced by this logic. One of the first responses to Eiko’s original tweet raised this very issue.

Kothe, Coates, Fried
Source: Kothe, Coates, Fried

From there people went in a variety of directions, but the most common was to suggest our items were less than ideal. In the words of one of our colleagues…

Source: Martin

Maybe this was intended as hyperbole, as we can’t recall items asking whether “All psychological differences between men and women are genetic.” Or maybe such claims represent a failing of Twitter itself, which doesn’t provide much room for nuance in academic debate.

The original questions and data are all available online, so perhaps the most sensible approach is to take a look and decide for yourself: Are the items terrible, are they double-barreled, and are we asking unreasonable, uninformed, or uninterpretable questions?

At that point, our critics turned to the question of whether ideology does indeed relate to answers to some of these questions. One skilled statistician was even kind enough to construct a network model which showed that evolutionary opinions cluster more tightly to each other than to ideology. Various commentators interpreted this model as evidence that political ideology does not relate to the endorsement of EP findings. However, the question of interest is not whether there are separate clusters, but whether ideology predicts some of the underlying tendency for people to endorse possible findings from evolutionary psychology.

To address this question, our co-author on this blog—George Richardson— did some additional modelling, which goes a step or three beyond the histograms we provided in the original manuscript. The major takeaway from George’s models was that belief in evolution, belief that the same evolutionary principles guide animal and human behavior, and being a bit less liberal (we don’t know the effect of being conservative, as nobody was) were each associated with an increased likelihood of accepting evolutionary psychology.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

So what can we conclude from all this? Our reactions are two-fold. First, although George’s new models are consistent with our earlier conclusions, they do not address all the potential problems identified on Twitter. Future work may uncover problems with our items and we hope that others will build on our initial efforts and improve them. Second, we believe that our current results, combined with the strong emotional reactions by some tweeters, are consistent with the conclusions from our published papers—that features of our evolved psychology do indeed impede the understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology.

  • Bill von Hippel is an evolutionary social psychologist at the University of Queensland and author of The Social Leap.
  • George Richardson is Coordinator for the Substance Abuse Counseling Program in the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services at the University of Cincinnati. He has strong interests in evolutionary psychology, psychometrics, and methods for addressing confounding in observational research (e.g., twin designs).
  • David Buss is a professor of psychology, author of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind and five other books ranging from mating to murder.

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Buss, D. M., & von Hippel, W. (2018). Psychological barriers to evolutionary psychology: Ideological bias and coalitional adaptations. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6, 148-158.

von Hippel, W., & Buss, D. M. (2017). Do ideologically driven scientific agendas impede the understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology? In L. Jussim & J. Crawford (Eds). The Politics of Social Psychology. Frontiers in Psychology.