Does psychology have a liberal bias?
Suppress that data we don't agree with!
Posted March 9, 2011
University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently argued that there is a liberal bias in academics, particularly in the social sciences.
Haidt, a self-described liberal turned moderate, has pointed out that the vast majority of faculty members in psychology departments are liberal. For instance, when giving a presentation at a recent popular psychology conference, he asked how many of the audience members considered themselves conservatives. Out of hundreds of people, only a handful raised their hands.
Now, anyone that knows anything about conformity and social pressures would probably guess that the actual number of conservatives is higher than the number that raised their hands that day. I'm quite sure Haidt would.
However, this arguably proves the point that a bias does exist. In essence, psychologists feel a social pressure to be liberal. And, as research on social consensus and attitude change indicates (as well as conformity), such social pressure can lead people to shift in a more liberal direction. Haidt himself noted that several graduate students have confided in him that they feel the need to almost "stay in the closet" as conservatives.
Now, I am definitely not a conservative, and as many others have noted, there are good reasons why psychologists tend to be liberal. For starters, being a psychologist (in this capacity at least), requires a commitment to science that often conflicts with conservative viewpoints. And further, liberals tend to score higher on such traits as "need for cognition," and "tolerance of ambiguity." This obviously would aid an academic career of research.
But, that being said, I do think Haidt is right. And, this bias impacts psychology in a way that is potentially (if not already) very problematic. Specifically, many psychological organizations take positions that are political, not scientific. And more specifically, they take liberal viewpoints, not surprisingly, given that most of the membership is liberal. (group polarization effects anyone?)
These groups would probably argue that their positions are not political, but merely reflect a pursuit of human decency. But this isn't an area psychological researchers should be getting into while labeling themselves psychologists. These are moral and political (and yes religious) issues that science should not make judgments on.
To be clear, I totally agree with all the positions that most psychological organizations take from a moral perspective. But, there is a serious problem when these positions block the publication of data.
The problem is that political and moral views can make it much more difficult to publish research that may be perfectly sound scienitifically. Sure, reviewers and editors would say they would never reject a paper because it didn't match their views, but these reviewers are probably full of shit (see Pronin's work on the bias blind spot). Of course they would be more negative towards a study that, for instance, found that murder victims' families greatly benefit when the murderer is executed (I am making this up, this isn't an actual finding) than one that found the opposite. They are human, and they would be more inclined to believe research supporting their ideas.
And this is assuming a study like that would even be submitted for publication in the first place. Not only does a bias likely exist against findings like this at the reviewer level, but it is possible that findings like this would make the researcher, not wanting to publish something showing a benefit of what he/she opposes, not even submit the study.
I'll leave it to more experienced minds in the field to come up with a solution. But, psychology would be foolish to not at least acknowledge that a field dominated by liberals, that has organizations taking liberal moral positions, does not suffer scientifically because of this. Data bias, or even suppression, because of personal political, moral, or religious views is not ok in a scientific community.
Haidt is right that such a bias exists against conservative views, as much as it pains this not-so-close-to -center liberal to say.