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Does the field of social psychology have an anti-conservative bias?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Attendees of a 2012 Tea Party Patriots rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In a provocative article published online last week in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova (“Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes”) asks, “Is social psychology biased against Republicans?”

She summarizes the evidence for both a “yes” and a “no” answer to that question, but mostly focuses on the findings that suggest an anti-conservative bias does exist.

For example, she cites a 2012 study that surveyed 800 social psychologists. It found that significant percentages of social psychologists have conservative viewpoints (on some issues), but that both they and their ideas face significant obstacles. Here’s how the two Dutch authors of that study summed up those findings:

First, although only 6% [of the social psychologists surveyed] described themselves as conservative “overall,” there was more diversity of political opinion on economic issues and foreign policy. [Eighteen percent described themselves as conservative on economic issues, for example.] Second, respondents significantly underestimated the proportion of conservatives among their colleagues. Third, conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, they are right to do so: In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.

This bias may influence the design, execution, evaluation and interpretation of research, says Konnikova. But, as she also points out, there are other biases that may have similar influences. Over the years, research has suggested that peer reviewers  — professionals within the same field who evaluate a paper to determine whether it merits being published — judge research more highly when it is attached to a famous institution than to a lesser known one. In addition, studies authored by men tend to receive higher evaluations than those authored by women when the reviewers are male — and vice versa. (Much of the research Konnikova cites about these biases is two or three decades old. It would be interesting to see if such biases continue to exist today — and, if so, to what extent.)

‘A bias of belief’

But, says Konnikova, there is another type of bias, which is even less visible: a “bias of belief.” She explains:

Here, the question isn’t about things that can be easily tested as empirical fact, like whether the sky is green or whether French fries make you skinny. They’re about the nebulous areas of philosophical and ideological leanings about the way the world should be.

One early study had psychologists review abstracts that were identical except for the result, and found that participants “rated those in which the results were in accord with their own beliefs as better.” Another found that reviewers rejected papers with controversial findings because of “poor methodology” while accepting papers with identical methods if they supported more conventional beliefs in the field. Yet a third, involving both graduate students and practicing scientists, showed that research was rated as significantly higher in quality if it agreed with the rater’s prior beliefs.

When Armstrong and the Drake University professor Raymond Hubbard followed publication records at sixteen American Psychological Association journals over a two-year period, comparing rejected to published papers — the journals’ editors had agreed to share submitted materials — they found that those about controversial topics were reviewed far more harshly. Only one, in fact, had managed to receive positive reviews from all reviewers. There was a secret, however, about that one. “The editor revealed that he had been determined to publish the paper, so he had sought referees that he thought would provide favorable reviews,” Armstrong wrote.

All these studies and analyses are classic examples of confirmation bias: when it comes to questions of subjective belief, we more easily believe the things that mesh with our general world view. When something clashes with our vision of how things should be, we look immediately for the flaws.

Of course, liberal social psychologists aren’t the only ones susceptible to confirmation bias. Conservatives are guilty of it, too. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has been quite vocal about expressing his concerns about political biases in his field (and who is featured in Konnikova’s article) told BBC Radio: “If you know what a group holds sacred, you’ll be able to find where they deny science. Everybody denies science when it’s uncomfortable.”

A ‘blinding’ solution

What’s the solution? Konnikova suggests “a blinding of the peer-review system — both in terms of applicants’ names and personal backgrounds and the hypotheses (or findings) of their research.” Here’s how she says that would work:

If you want to research Democrats and Republicans, say — or any other ideologically loaded topics — call them Purples and Oranges for the duration of the paper. The methods and research structure will be evaluated without any ideological predispositions. Blind peer review in papers and grants would also solve a number of other bias problems, including against certain people, institutions, and long-held ideas. As for ideologically sensitive papers that have already been published, blind that data as well and reanalyze the premises and conclusions, pairing them with Tetlock’s turnabout tests. Is the opposite approach nonsensical? Chances are, then, that this one is, too.

As I said, this is a provocative article. You can read it on the New Yorker website. And if you want to be challenged even more on the topic, I recommend listening to a BBC Radio documentary from a couple years back on “Political Prejudice.” (hat tip: MindHacks).

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/03/2014 - 12:58 pm.

    Intriguing

    Interesting approach, and I suspect peer review(ers) more than I do ideological bias by strangers. Academic fields, or sometimes parts of fields, take on at least a few characteristics simply because of the nature of the field. Sometime they’re more conservative, sometimes they’re more liberal – both terms, of course, being more than a little relative.

    I very much like the color idea as a mask for what’s actually being looked at, but of course, there are arguments that certain colors are themselves loaded with symbolism in some cultural contexts, so that, too, might require more-than-usual care.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/03/2014 - 02:43 pm.

    Confirmation bias

    A study in 2009 sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council concluded that confirmation bias, the tendency of research to be undermined by subjective influence, is a problem in the so-called forensic sciences. It made this conclusion from the model of scientific research which assumes that such bias exists but then designed experiments and studies to factor out the bias. One of the biggest problems for the “forensic sciences” was the resistance among the practitioners to acknowledge that such bias might even exist, which of course implied that these “scientists” were blind to anything that might disprove their pet findings.

    Social psychology cannot be recognized as a legitimate social science if its research does not account for confirmation or “cognitive bias. On the other hand, some people, following the adage that “reality has a liberal bias”, might hold that social psychology might be perceived as “anti-conservative” because it makes findings other people, who tend to be conservative, don’t like to hear. Conservatives spend a lot of time denying and trying to disprove reality.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/03/2014 - 05:16 pm.

      You Beat Me to It

      The difference between liberal folk and “conservatives,”

      is that when liberals read reputable, peer-reviewed research which disproves one or more of their pet ideas – things they may have believed must certainly be true,…

      liberals tend to take that information into account and revise what they consider to be true.

      When “conservatives” come across reputable, peer-reviewed research which disproves one or more of their pet ideas – things they believe must certainly be true,…

      they use an wide variety of defense mechanisms to be sure that such information never actually enters their awareness,…

      most commonly attacking the researchers (ALL academics are suspect), the places where that information was published, or dismissing it as an attempt by “liberal elites” to destroy their way of life.

      Truth does NOT, in fact “have a liberal bias,” it is, in fact, biased toward truth, itself.

      But since far too many of our conservative friends are unable to allow to enter their awareness anything that might call into question what they already believe to be true,…

      the results of reputable, carefully-conducted social science research HAS to be dismissed as being biased against them,…

      otherwise they might be forced to take it into consideration and change their minds in response to it,…

      which for psychological reasons, FEELS to them as if their entire world is falling into ruin (which, of course, is NOT a normal, healthy response, but represents a very deep, unconscious weakness buried within them).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2014 - 06:01 pm.

      As Carl Sagan said

      “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary support”.
      My own field was behavioral experimental psychology, not social, but we all started with the same basic scientific training.
      For anyone who knows the literature in their field, a claim that is inconsistent with what is known in that field is going to take more support than one that is consistent with the known science.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/03/2014 - 09:47 pm.

    Values and bias

    Mr. Kingstad, don’t you think that Democrats spend even more time denying reality (Islamic terrorism, failure of Socialist approach, different people’s abilities, etc.)? It’s interesting that in discussing an article describing bias you express so much of that bias… By the way, it seems that Democrats value diversity so much; so how about having some on college campuses meaning allowing more conservative professors there? Should they be included in affirmative action considering that they represent maybe 20% of all college professors but almost 50 % of the population?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2014 - 05:58 pm.

      You’re still beating

      a dead horse.

      Democrats don’t deny that some Muslims are terrorists, just that all of them are, or that something about Islam makes people automatically terrorists (do YOU know any Muslims?).

      Many students of political reform would say that Socialism can’t be said to have failed since it has never been tried on any but a very small scale (the early Kibbutzes, the Oneida community). Certainly Stalin and Mao were not socialists in any sense that Marx or Bernard Shaw would have recognized. Just because a totalitarian government labels itself ‘Socialist’ does not make it so.

      As for individual differences in ability, I’ve been on the basketball court with pros a couple of times; I know that it’s real. Where we differ is that the liberal does not infer that differences in ability should automatically lead to differences in opportunity, or to less than equal rights. Or that you can infer differences in ability from any sort of group membership.

      As far as conservative professors go, they go mostly to the business school.
      Many people (some on this list) have pointed out the different career choices made by liberals and conservatives.
      I spend 40 years as a faculty member in the Minnesota State University system. Many of those were as member and chair of department and college personnel committees. I don’t recall the issue of political orientation ever coming up. If it had been raised, it would have been by the candidate, since committee members would not have regarded it as relevant.
      When you’re in the process of hiring someone who you are going to have to work with for the next 20 or 30 years, the first thing that you’re interested in is competence. After that come social skills. You would not want to work with someone who spent a lot of time proselytizing about -anything- other than their academic field. Even if you agree with them, it gets in the way of work.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/04/2014 - 08:42 pm.

        Explanation

        Islam is the only religion I am aware of that is used as justification for terrorism. Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists but have you ever heard about a terrorist screaming “In the name of Jesus” before blowing a plane?

        Socialism is a system in which means of producing are owned by the government – that is a socialism definition so the USSR was a socialist country. China is not anymore even though it is still a totalitarian country, the same as the Soviet Union was.

        Difference in abilities does not imply differences in opportunities, it implies differences in results but liberals make a judgement on the basis of results and when the results are different they assume that the opportunities were different. Logically it is nonsense. And unfortunately, it is liberals who assume different abilities based on race; otherwise why do they think that minorities need affirmative action to succeed?

        And finally, people like to work with people who think alike on one hand and on the other hand liberals consider people with conservative views backwards and bad. So even if those things never came up during the hiring process, I can imagine that it was happening subconsciously. The same way liberals are saying subconscious racism plays the role in discrimination…

  4. Submitted by Jon Lord on 11/04/2014 - 07:05 am.

    Lets just say, conservative vs liberal Mr. Gutman. I for one wouldn’t allow a paper about dinosaurs living with Adam and Eve to even be considered for review. There is a point where one has to separate out views that are undeniably wrong from those who stay inside the lines of reality as suggested by Jon and Greg. Diversity, while in most cases is good, isn’t when it comes to science vs pseudo-science.

    In terms of the article…”Islamic terrorism, failure of Socialist approach, different people’s abilities’…what does that even mean?

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