case study – ourselves…

February 8, 2011

The New York Times picks up on this story about a social psychologist who is creating some hubbub by suggesting that psychologists (he was focusing on social psychologists) are a rather homogeneous bunch. He specifically notes that most social psychologists identify themselves as politically and socially liberal, while very few (openly) identify themselves as politically and socially conservative. Numerous conservative commentators have made a career out of lampooning academics and their “liberal biases”, so this is not exactly a new claim. However, he develops an argument focusing on the fact that this shared moral framework within the field creates a situation where theoretical assumptions may go unnoticed (and untested) and those with a different viewpoint may find themselves shut out of the conversation. Given that science is supposed to encourage an open and multifaceted exchange of ideas, this would be a not good situation… Here is a link to a narration of the presentation he gave, so you can get a sense of his ideas – listen to it, it is interesting. Go. Now.

John Haidt is the psychologist at the center of all this. He is a Professor at the University of Virgina  and has studied issues related to how people make moral judgments for the past 25 years. He has proposed the social intuitionist model (Haidt, 2001) – focusing on unconscious processes as opposed to explicit moral reasoning as the basis for how people decide what is right and what is wrong (those of you who are students of psychology can compare his ideas to those of Kohlberg to appreciate the significance of this notion). So, even though academic psychologists may have the best intentions of developing an understanding of human nature, if we begin with a shared set of implicit preconceptions they will shape our subsequent theories and research.

Briefly, I think Dr. Haidt is correct to have the concerns that he does. However, there are several passages in the NYT article that I found disconcerting. These issues are really tough ones to work through, and I thought the author leaned a bit too heavily on the dramatic “statistics” and anecdotes. There are some fundamental issues that should be addressed, but the article instead looked to some high-profile, lightning rod episodes that do more to polarize than engage with the real issues. There are a whole host of reasons why social psychology might be overly-liberal, but the article misses these (although Haidt addresses them somewhat in his talk). Regardless, it is worthwhile for psychologists to be open to this issue and to actively find ways to address the problems it creates.

Here is a link to a short interactive survey you can take to learn more about your own moral perspectives.

By the way, you can check out the interesting literature developing that examines these liberal/conservative personality differences (a good example is Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008 published in Political Psychology). You can check out work by John Jost to get a sense of what is happening in this sub-field of psychology.



  1. Thanks for writing about this. There’s gotta be contributions too from liberal vs. conservative views of prescriptive vs. descriptive thinking about society. It’s almost the definition of liberalism to be nonjudgmental (and thus scientific, sorta) about societal structures. (And as Moynahan found out, even when some judgment might lead you to asking better questions.) But it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if conservatives with interesting theories get discouraged early and drop out of academia before they even apply for tenure-track jobs.

    I’m a big fan of Jost’s work, although my wife (an eclectic liberal), when I gave her a Jost paper found it appalling, arguing instead that most people have no consistent ideology and that instead they parrot whatever they hear. Fair point…

    • I agree that there may be some fundamental aspects of how people think that draw them to one profession over another. There are a lot of interesting ideas out there about what might differ between liberals and conservatives and the paths they choose for themselves. I was most interested in Haidt’s point that the lack of this form of diversity can impair the scientific enterprise, especially considering the domain that social scientists seek to study.
      Good thing us cognitive scientists don’t have to worry about such biases… or not…

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