Continued Political Bias in Social Psychology

A conservative’s recent experiences.

Posted May 31, 2018

Recently I attended the annual conference of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). As a conservative, I have grown accustomed to hearing jokes about Republicans in every situation I encounter in academia. Some are harmless, most are full of hatred, and none are directed at me personally. Political bias against Republicans is strong in academia and the social sciences (Abrams, 2016; Shields & Dunn, 2016), particularly my field of social psychology (Duarte et al., 2015). When I encountered a Republican joke as the opening line from the first speaker that I attended at the APS conference, it occurred to me to keep count of how many jokes were made at the expense of Republicans and Democrats. I had never thought to do this before, and when I kept count, I was surprised at just how many times a conservative Republican hears jokes at their expense by social psychologists at a conference.

Targets of Political Jokes About Democrats and Republicans

Social Psychologist #1 (1.5-hour talk): 0 Democrat, 2 Republican

Social Psychologist #2 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 3 Republican

Social Psychologist #3 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 1 Republican

Social Psychologist #4 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Social Psychologist #5 (30-minute talk): 1 Democrat, 3 Republican

Social Psychologist #6 (25-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 3 Republican

Social Psychologist # 7 (50-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Social Psychologist #8 (from 20-minutes of a 60-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 1 Republican, 1 Trump specific

Total Jokes by Social Psychologists = 1 Democrat targets, 14 Republican targets

Industrial/Organizational Psychologist #1 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Industrial/Organizational Psychologist #2 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Industrial/Organizational Psychologist #3 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Industrial/Organizational Psychologist #4 (20-minute talk): 0 Democrat, 0 Republican

Total Jokes by Industrial/Organizational Psychologists = 0 Democrat targets, 0 Republican targets

Keep in mind that I attended only talks of the scientists that I most wanted to hear from about their science. These were the people of which I am a big fan and highly familiar with their research. I came to their presentations ready to learn!

Each joke led to roars of laughter from the crowd and a deluge of derogatory comments about Republicans among the crowd members to each other (none of which are captured in the frequencies presented here). None of the jokes were necessary to presenting results of the studies, so all they did was reveal the large biases of the scientists. At one point, I had to disentangle “Trump” from “Republicans” in my frequencies, as one joke was specific to Trump and not Republicans in general. Most targeted both. One talk lamented the fact that a Republican who might wander into the session would be very uncomfortable. As that one person who had wandered into that session, I sat uncomfortably hoping that the speaker didn’t ask for a show of hands of conservatives in the room, as I had lived through that nightmare once before when Jonathan Haidt had done it (Mather, 2016). I thought “Oh no, it’s happening again!”

Looking at these frequencies, it is clear that industrial/organizational psychologists have no problem leaving their politics out of their science. Why do social psychologists have such a difficult time leaving their politics out of their science? Note that the one joke in which Democrats were the target was a self-deprecating joke by a self-identified liberal, followed quickly by a vitriolic comment about the deficiencies of Republicans.

The science was great, but the jokes were unnecessary. If social psychologists want viewpoint diversity to be represented in our field, a simple solution is to stop making public jokes that target a particular group. A better solution would be to stop making such jokes in private. The best solution would be to be open-minded and to embrace ideological diversity within the scientific community.

To get a good sense for what life is like for conservatives in social psychology, there are two excellent resources. Crawford and Jussim (2018) have assembled evidence that social psychology is politically biased. To get a sense of the day to day life of conservatives in social psychology, a good account is found in Chapter 13 by Stevens et al. (2018) entitled “Political Exclusion and Discrimination in Social Psychology: Lived Experiences and Solutions,” and Shields and Dunn’s (2016) Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University.

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology, of whom the membership overlaps with the social psychology presenters at the Association for Psychological Science conference, defines its third of three core values as “Diversity and inclusiveness of people and ideas” and its third Goal and Objective as “Enhance diversity of people and ideas in the field and promote an inclusive and respectful climate.” The field of social psychology continues to fall well short of these values and goals.

For a group that proposes to value the diversity of people and ideas, social psychologists are an ideologically homogenous group who stereotypes the outgroup, using the terms “we” and “they” regularly throughout scientific talks (which would have been as interesting to count as the joke frequency data). Most of all, it seems that the liberal scientists just kept talking about how they couldn’t understand Republicans and spoke as if they had never actually met one. Perhaps they had not. Inbar and Lammers (2012) showed that liberal social psychologists are willing to discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. Unfortunately, six years after those findings, it does not appear that liberal social psychologists are genuinely interested in any serious degree of ideological tolerance or diversity.

To be sure, there are a handful of psychologists working through the Heterodox Academy who promote such diversity. But the liberal foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity appear to be suspended when liberals consider the value of conservatives, leading to stereotyping of the out-group (Republicans) and continued discrimination. It will be increasingly difficult for social scientists to be taken seriously by Republican politicians when the scientists themselves directly attack the politicians. I’m not sure why so many intelligent people are unable to see the damage they do to our science by such short-sighted approaches to presenting their work. As long as liberal social psychologists feel that conservative Republicans are deserving targets of their stereotyping and discrimination, nothing will change. Fortunately, liberal social psychologists have provided conservative social psychologists with a great teaching example of the all of the principles of prejudice and discrimination.

References

Abrams, S. J. (2016, July 1). There are conservative professors. Just not in these states. The New York Times (online).

Crawford, J. T., & Jussim, L. (Eds.) (2018). The politics of social psychology. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Duarte, J., 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, 1-13.

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

Mather, R. D. (2016, March 29). The ideology of social psychology: A rare conservative social psychologist. Psychology Today (online).

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