Building a Politically Tolerant Social Psychological Science

Critical thinking, bias correction, and American Conservatism

Posted May 05, 2016

In the book “Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University,” Shields and Dunn (2016) describe their empirical research into the underrepresentation of conservative faculty in higher education and provide a peek into the life of the professors who make up this minority (for a review, see Flaherty, 2016). In conducting their research, they examined 153 conservative professors in six disciplines (economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy, and literature) in 84 universities, with quantitative analysis of their attitudes and qualitative interviews. Ultimately they describe life in the university where most of these faculty members are hesitant to publicly identify themselves as being conservatives, tread lightly among their liberal colleagues, but still mostly find happiness and collegiality in higher education. Additionally, Shields and Dunn offer a number of empirically-informed suggestions on how to deal with this underrepresentation.

What should we do? I will use the underrepresentation of conservatives in social psychology to demonstrate how social psychology is uniquely positioned to be a model for the solution to the more general problem in academia in areas where political orientation directly relates to the content of the scholarship. I suggest these three elements as part of a solution: critical thinking, bias correction, and thought suppression.

Critical thinking about American Conservatism. Critical thinkers will see that conservatism is not what gets portrayed in the media from the extremists who shout the loudest. Goldberg (2015) and Nash (2016) outline detailed descriptions of conservatism. As political parties mature over time, attitude polarization creates two extremes (liberal and conservative). Though there can be other perspectives, informed by issue specific critical thinking, two sides predominantly emerge. Neither side (liberal or conservatives) sees that the other has differences in opinion among themselves, rather they create a stereotype of the other side and attack that, with anyone on the other side who doesn’t fit with the stereotype being subtyped. It is simple in-group heterogeneity (e.g., I recognize diversity within my own group, as we are all unique individuals) and out-group homogeneity (e.g., they are all the same). Additionally, since liberals and conservatives evaluate information using different sets of moral foundations (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009), different issues are salient and create stereotypes based on a very narrow set of issues in the other group. One recommendation is for liberals to critically think about conservative perspectives by reading foundational conservative works, not with the goal of conversion, but with the goal of better refining their concept of a conservative.

Bias correction. Correcting bias of any type is difficult. It requires: 1) being aware that you could be biased, 2) being motivated to correct the bias, 3) being aware of the direction and magnitude of the bias, and 4) having the ability to correct the bias (Wilson & Brekke, 1994). This requires a great deal of work. First, we must know there is a possibility we could be biased. The work of Durate et al. (2015) has established that many liberals in social psychology are biased against conservatives. Second, we must want to correct the bias. The entire correction process disintegrates if no one thinks the bias is worth correcting, which has been the position of some (read the comments section in Duarte et al., 2015) on this particular issue. Third we have to know which direction and how much we are biased so that we don’t overcorrect or undercorrect. This is important, because conservative social psychologists are entitled to fair treatment, not special positive treatment (overcorrection). Fourth, we can’t be tired or distracted, or we fall back to relying on our biases. So, it takes work to be unbiased, and we must apply it specifically to issues that are important to us as individuals. No one can be unbiased in every domain, but if we choose enough social groups to be unbiased towards and make fair treatment a priority, we can automate chronic egalitarian goals (Moskowitz et al., 1999) and be successful more often.

Social psychologists are in a unique position to reflect on our own biases and be an example to other disciplines in academia on how to engage correction mechanisms at individual levels to promote good science.

Thought suppression. Wegner (1997) described a conscious operating process that searches for allowable thoughts and distracters, and an unconscious monitoring process that searches for instances of the thought to be avoided. When we are tired or distracted, the operating process is at a disadvantage, generates lower quality distacters (Reich & Mather, 2008) and we are left with the contents of the monitor—exactly what we wish to avoid. Monteith et al. (1998) showed that suppression of stereotypes works for low prejudice individuals, but a rebound effect occurs for high prejudice individuals where suppression leads to even more application of the stereotype after the suppression is complete. Thus, in this instance, suppressing stereotypes of conservatives as a strategy would not be expected to work for liberals who hold extreme biases, but those without extreme biases against conservatives could use it as an effective strategy.  


Why is it important to connect with conservatives in the field of social psychology? In my recent article “Embracing the Right,” I made the argument that social psychology needs allies among conservative politicians and that conservative social psychologists can lend the field credibility with this group. Shortly after thereafter, Stein (2016) discussed a recent scenario where specific research has been targeted for defunding by congress, and that story ended with the congressman/leader of the attack thoughtfully reconsidering after getting in a room with the scientists to understand their research from their perspective.

Research funding is at stake, the credibility of a scientific discipline is on the line, and there are real individuals who are non-liberal who are making choices to join science or not based on how well they are received by their future colleagues in the classroom (Duarte et al., 2015) and at the water cooler (Nisbett, 2015).

This is not just a social psychology issue (Crawford et al., 2015), but as Shields and Dunn demonstrated, it permeates higher education (see also Jaschik, 2016). As social psychologists, we have the chance to stand up, using our own research, and be a model for civility in scientific discourse and politics, which can ultimately affect government, policy, and build a better society through solid science built on diverse perspectives, and used by politicians of all varieties who trust its merit.


Crawford, J. T., Duarte, J. L., Haidt, J. L., Jussim, L., Stern, C., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). It may be harder than we thought, but political diversity will (still) improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 45-51

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1029-1046.

Goldberg, J. (2015, June 20). When we say ‘conservative,’ we mean… National Review (online)

Flaherty, C. (2016, March 16) Passing on the right. Inside Higher Education (online)

Jaschik, S. (2016, April 27). More educated, more liberal. Inside Higher Education (online)

Monteith, M. J., Spicer, C. V., & Tooman, G. D. (1998). Consequences of stereotype suppression: Stereotypes on and not on the rebound. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 355-377.

Moskowitz, G. B., Gollwitzer, P. M., Wasel, W., & Schaal, B. (1999). Preconscious control of stereotype activation through chronic egalitarian goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 167-184.

Nash, G. H. (2016, April 26). The conservative intellectual movement in America: Then and now. National Review (online)

Nisbett, R. (2015). Welcoming conservatives to the field. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 34.

Reich, D. A., & Mather, R. D. (2008). Busy perceivers and ineffective suppression goals: A critical role for distracter thoughts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 706-718.

Shields, J. A., & Dunn, Sr., J. M. (2016). Passing on the right: Conservative professors in the progressive university. New York: Oxford.

Stein, S. (2016). Here’s what happened when a group of scientists went to confront their congressional tormentors: It turns out their “wasteful” research serves a purpose. Huffington Post (online)

Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 117-142.

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control.

Robert Mather
Trail marker tree. Eastern Oklahoma, USA.
Source: Robert Mather

, 34-52.