Robert D. Mather Ph.D.

The Conservative Social Psychologist

Embracing the Right

American Conservatism can save social psychology from irrelevance

Posted Apr 13, 2016

In September of 2004, an event occurred that changed the tolerance for conservative scientists in social psychology. U.S. Representative Randy Neugebauer (a Republican from my home district in West Texas) chose to circumvent the peer review process of the National Institute of Health and targeted two social science grants for defunding. One of those grants belonged to a fast-rising social psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin named Samuel Gosling. At issue was his research on room décor in college dormitories. Could how students decorate their dorm rooms give insight into their mental health and predict depression or suicide? These are, at least to me, very important scientific questions to ask. But to Mr. Neugebauer, they seemed silly. The grant had already passed the peer review of scientists, but was targeted as an example of wasteful spending. I’m a conservative and value fiscal responsibility. I would have easily approved Gosling’s study to be funded because it was one of the most practical, innovative, and important studies of 2004.

There was a fundamental miscommunication. Regarding empirical social psychology research, the perspective of many conservatives is “You haven’t persuasively made your case to us.” Social psychology has done a poor job of including conservatives in the discussion of its research. Conservatives are not represented in the field. This makes it difficult for the field to gain credibility with conservatives. It also makes it difficult to find someone who can effectively communicate social psychology research to conservative decision makers. You need a scientist who is immersed in the field of social psychology to understand the research and its value. You need someone who can communicate to conservatives with understanding and credibility. Liberals and conservatives think very differently based on different moral foundations, so the arguments presented by one group fall short of being effective messages to the other. 

When conservatives see the field of social psychology, they see liberals promoting liberal agendas with liberal research. This makes it hard to distinguish which things to take seriously. More conservatives are needed to champion good research and represent social psychology to the public and legislature. Unfortunately, the tendency is to exclude conservatives from the discussion.

Robert Mather

Inside the rotunda at the Oklahoma State Capitol, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA.

Source: Robert Mather

Who are conservatives and why do they matter to science? They are voters, decision makers, and people who need to know about social science. If they don’t trust the messenger or the research, the information won’t be applied or funded. David Yokum pointed out in a recent article on the White House Social & Behavioral Science Team’s role in government, “Applied research, especially in government, involves politics. Shocking, right?”

What is conservatism? The best definition that I can find of conservatives comes from Jonah Goldberg. In recent research about social psychologists, researchers have been very inclusive in their definition of conservatives, including libertarians in the definition. This serves to get a large enough sample size of non-liberals, but doesn’t represent true conservatives well.

One of the criticisms of conservatives is often that they are opposed to change. This is not inherently the case. If good change is built into the system, conservatives support it. If science is considered evidence, then it will be used. So the question from a conservative decision maker would be “If only liberals have done the science to match their liberal agenda, why would I accept their research as evidence, fund their research, or support it in any way at all?” There is an assumption among many social psychologists that the research is self-evident. This is clearly not the case.

How can American Conservatism help social psychology research? First, conservative researchers in the peer review process and as researchers add diversity to the perspectives that inform science. Second, this representation lends credibility to social psychology research as it is presented to conservative decision makers. Good social psychology research should be appealing to both liberals and conservatives.

Currently, libertarians are what pass for diversity in social psychology. Historically libertarians are not elected to large numbers of government offices where they can organize large numbers of votes into caucuses. Conservatives are, and they are the least represented in the field. This is not immediately problematic for conservatives, but it is problematic for social psychologists. Rather than relying on liberal scientists at every step of the scientific process, social psychology also needs scientists who are familiar with the National Review, The Federalist Society and Texas Review of Law and Politics to promote their social psychology research to conservative decision makers, because conservative decision makers will listen to their own.

Tipping the scales the other way is not desirable. Having a field made entirely, or even mostly, of conservative social psychologists is not the answer. The reality is that the data support an overwhelmingly liberal field that will not be taken seriously by conservative politicians. We need good scientists of many ideologies, asking the right questions, reviewing each other’s work as scientists (not ideologues). Then social psychology will gain the relevance and influence that its good science deserves.

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