The Problem with Psychology

A brief history of the heterodox movement in psychology

Posted Sep 11, 2018

This post is a special post co-authored with Julie Planke and Glenn Geher. It focuses on the nature of the heterodox movement in psychology and connects with our experiences at the recent Heterodox Psychology Workshop held in August of this year at Chapman University.

In 2012, renowned social psychologist, Joshua Aronson of NYU, gave a talk at Elon University on social psychological factors related to education. Therein, Aronson presented a highly provocative finding, which was this:

geralt / Pixabay
Source: geralt / Pixabay

When taking the AP calculus test in high school, boys, as has been found in the past, out-perform girls. But that is, according to Aronson’s presentation, only true if the gender of the student was asked at the start of the test. In one study, for one entire group of students taking the test (according to a slide presented in Aronson’s talk), gender of the student was asked at the very end of the test-taking session. Interestingly, according to the presentation, in this condition, girls actually, in his words, “outperform the boys.”

What an interesting finding. And just imagine the implications! This finding, rooted in the concept of stereotype threat, suggests that it is often the case that people behave in a way that is consistent with stereotypes (e.g., boys performing better than how girls perform on a math test) when salient features of the stereotype are underscored. So the idea here is that since the gender of the student is usually underscored at the start of the AP calculus test in a typical testing condition, this seemingly innocuous fact may prompt boys to perform better and it may prompt girls to perform worse.

In terms of the politics of gender, this finding might be seen as a critical piece of information that speaks to how patriarchal structures in society may act to strongly and systemically inhibit the success of girls and women.

As is described in detail by social psychologist Joe Duarte in this Facebook post on the Facebook group for the International Social Cognition Network, several highly credible organizations and institutions link to the YouTube video of Aronson’s talk and cite this particular element of the talk. For instance, in Joe’s words, “The National Center for Women in Information Technology invited Aronson to speak at their conference, and hosts a PDF of the slideshow.” Similarly, in Joe’s words, “WEPAN, the Women in Engineering Proactive Network ... continues to host his slides.”

This all would be great if it were true. But it’s not. When Joe Duarte called out Joshua Aronson on this point, asking to see the actual data from the original source, Joshua initially hesitated. He then turned up a report by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) that describes this study - but there was one small problem. According to that report, “None of the differences in the means between the no prime and prime conditions was statistically significant for any ethnic group or gender.”

In other words, this effect, which fits in so well with a portrait of American society as being filled with systemic sexist processes and structures, was made up.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, Joshua Aronson actually chimed in on the Facebook thread started by Joe Duarte and wrote, “... Joe, good job on you for identifying the spread of misinformation.” Here, Joshua is essentially admitting that he had made a mistake in presenting those data. (impressive on Joshua’s part, by the way, to publicly admit fault in a conciliatory manner - our world could use more of that kind of thing!).

Welcome to the World of Heterodoxy in Psychology

While Duarte’s example regarding Aronson’s research described here is pretty clear, it is hardly unique. As has been documented by various scholars, academia has shifted to become increasingly intellectually and politically homogeneous over the past several decades. Going back to a highly cited American Psychologist article from 2001, social psychologist Richard Redding broached the problem of a limited number of prevailing narratives or intellectual orthodoxies that have begun to take hold in the social and behavioral sciences. In a powerful and provocative presentation given at SUNY New Paltz related to this topic, Jonathan Haidt provides extensive data showing that academics have become increasingly likely to report being politically liberal across the past several decades. As this shift happens, it makes sense that narratives and paradigms for understanding what it means to be human that are rooted in highly liberal political agendas have become relatively dominant in the behavioral and social sciences. And this all can help us understand how Aronson’s untrue “finding” described above was so widely and quickly accepted within academic circles. The “finding” fit with the prevailing ideological narratives.

When it comes to shaping our understanding of the world and our place in it, professors have something of a disproportionate influence in many societies. We publish books, give public lectures, etc. Part of our entire job is to disseminate ideas to a broad audience. The lack of intellectual diversity that now exists within the academy may be unintentionally producing some outcomes in terms of (a) shaping the research we pursue, (b) the manner in which we address our research questions, and (c) how we interpret the results. So one could make the case that the quest for knowledge, which is a basic feature of the work of academics, is being distorted as it filters through a set of prevailing intellectual and political narratives that dominate the academic world.

Along the way, scholars and students who self-identify as conservative frequently report feeling oppressed. Further, research findings that are perceived to go against the prevailing narratives may be met with extreme scrutiny.

Humans are motivated creatures, and all kinds of evidence has shown that we regularly fall victim to motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), or the tendency to think things and to see the world in ways that match our pre-existing and biased world views. If academia is dominated by individuals who hold a particular set of ideologies, then simply because academics are humans (and, thus, engage in motivated reasoning), any research that is not consistent with their narratives and ideological biases is in for an uphill battle.

The heterodox movement (with “heterodox” corresponding to the importance of multiple orthodoxies, or intellectual pluralism) in psychology was created to address exactly this problem.

What is the Point of the Heterodox Movement in Psychology?

The Heterodox Movement in Psychology serves a primary purpose: to challenge the field’s prevailing narratives, develop a truly pluralistic approach within academic psychology, and to increase viewpoint diversity in the field. This movement genuinely seeks to change the playing field.

History and Timeline of the Heterodox Movement

Here is a brief overview of the development of the heterodox movement in psychology:

  • 2001: Richard Redding published Sociopolitical Diversity in Psychology: The Case for Pluralism in the American Psychologist, being the first to explicitly introduce this problem to the field of psychology as a whole. Prior to this publication, academics such as Phil Tetlock and Peter Suedfeld led the research and discussion of the downstream consequences of the lack of conservative perspective specific to political psychology. In his article, Redding discussed (with detailed examples) how exactly the dominance of the liberal narrative is hindering virtually every aspect of psychological research, and why the domain of diversity (which is so highly valued by progressive politics) should be expanded to include political and intellectual diversity.
  • 2011: At the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Jonathan Haidt delivered his now-famous talk on, The bright future of post-partisan social psychology (free and streaming here). In this talk, Haidt articulately explains the moral psychology behind the issue of academics’ personal (liberal) political agendas influencing psychological science. Many political values are akin to sacred values, studied in moral psychology. And so, these sacred values become so tied to morality that preserving them becomes more important than pursuing truth (i.e., knowledge advancement). As a result, the credibility of findings reported within social psychology has suffered. For example, a young social psychologist struggling for success would not dare to try to publish findings critically examining sex differences, findings supporting stereotype accuracy, or any findings supporting a nativist perspective on human development. Doing so would assure that he or she would be labeled as politically conservative —a tag that is something of a scarlet letter within the ivory tower. As Haidt would say, our own moral reasoning binds and blinds us to our own sacred biases, and leads us to deprive ourselves from alternative viewpoints that would have the potential to help kickstart the progress of research, promoting better science.
  • 2012: Inbar and Lammers published Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, in which they obtained empirical evidence suggesting that social psychologists are actually more diverse than was previously thought regarding their political beliefs when it comes to particular domains (foreign policy, economics). To the current point, for social issues, these researchers found that only 4% of academics report being right of center. This kind of extreme attitudinal homogeneity has implications for how people operate. A follow-up study revealed that conservative academics are generally reluctant to make their beliefs public due to perceived hostility and discrimination. Interestingly, the more liberal an academic respondent was, the more likely that he or she was to report that he or she would discriminate against conservative colleagues. This type of oppressive culture within higher education surrounding political beliefs directly discourages viewpoint diversity. Indeed, in a sense, it puts shackles on the entire endeavor of intellectual creativity which sits near the core of the mission of the University.
  • 2015: Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science was published by José Duarte, Jarret Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jon Haidt, Lee Jussim, and Phil Tetlock in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. This review article, put together by some of the primary leaders of the Heterodox movement, provided evidence for four central points: 1) Academic psychology has become politically homogeneous over the past 50 years. 2) This lack of political diversity has led to liberal values guiding social psychological research practices, compromising all findings. 3) Increasing political diversity in the field will improve social psychological science and decrease research biases. 4) The lack of conservative voice in social psychology is a result of both self-selection and hostile climate and discrimination from liberal academics. The article also suggests potential avenues to move forward and to promote viewpoint diversity within the social sciences.
  • 2015: Haidt and a group of less than a dozen academics formed the Heterodox Academy, with a specific mission: to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement. Currently, thousands of professors and graduate students from all over the U.S. have joined as members in support of this mission. The Academy has a highly read blog and it has recently hosted its first-ever conference focusing on issues of ideological heterogeneity within the academy. The creation of the Heterodox Academy, which includes academic members who represent the full political spectrum, stands as a major step in the current movement to help advance pluralism within the academy.
  • 2017: Debra Mashek, a highly accomplished academic psychologist and fellow Psychology Today blogger, was hired as the Executive Director of the Heterodox Academy. This hire was a major step toward helping organize and advance the broader heterodox movement within the academy (and to this point, Debra’s work has been highly effective in this role).
  • 2018: Crawford and Jussim wrote a book chapter in The Politics of Social Psychology entitled, Possible Solutions for a Less Politicized Social Psychological Science. Therein, they continued to discuss suggestions and recommendations for how to promote political diversity within psychology and they discuss best practices for checking one’s own political bias as a researcher.  
  • 2018: The first Heterodox Psychology Conference was held at Chapman University in early August at Chapman University. This event, appropriately organized by Richard Redding, a founder of the heterodox movement, served as a workshop for graduate students and young scholars to explore a plurality of ideas and perspectives in psychological science, and to learn how to successfully navigate the field while doing so. As two individuals who were privileged to be able to attend that event, we both say that this conference was more intellectually stimulating than typical academic conferences (by a lot!) and we fully expect all kinds of important intellectual outcomes and collaborations to emerge from the conference. Bringing a bunch of heterodox behavioral scientists together for three days was a brilliant idea!

Bottom Line

Scientists should go where the science takes them, not where their politics does. (Redding, 2013, p. 444).

Look, we are all guilty of motivated reasoning. We like to see things that confirm our views of the world. And we pretty quickly dismiss information that is inconsistent with our view of the world.

The problem with the human behavioral sciences is that scientists in this field are both (a) researchers and (b) humans at the same time. To address this inherent problem in doing behavioral research on humans, it seems that advancing a plurality of perspectives and narratives to frame out work in the human behavioral sciences should have the effect of increasing our understanding of what it means to be human. And this is the point of the heterodox movement in psychology.

Left, right, essentialist, constructionist, post-modernist, materialist, etc., etc. As Richard Redding pointed out in 2001, academic progress thrives in a pluralistic intellectual landscape. Here is to advancing an open-minded agenda for the future of research in the behavioral sciences. Here is to the heterodox psychology movement.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Vania Rolon for pointing out the Facebook thread by Joe Duarte that is summarized in the introduction to this piece. And for being such a brave early-career heterodox researcher!

References

Jussim, L. (2018). Possible solutions for a less politicized social psychological science. For JT Crawford and L. Jussim. The Politics of Social Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-58.

Haidt, J. (2011) The bright future of post-partisan social psychology. Talk given at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, TX, January 27, 2011. Transcript available at: http://people.stern.nyu. edu/jhaidt/postpartisan.htm Haidt, J. (2016). How two incompatible sacred values are driving conflict and confusion in America’s Colleges and Universities. Invited presentation hosted by the Free Speech Task Force of SUNY New Paltz. New Paltz, New York.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480–498.

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 496-503.

Redding, R. E. (2001). Sociopolitical diversity in psychology: The case for pluralism. American Psychologist, 56(3), 205.

Redding, R. E. (2013). Politicized science. Society, 50(5), 439-446.