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Are social psychologists biased against conservatives, or do they just think they are?

August 9, 2012

A new paper coming out next month by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers proposes that some social psychologists discriminate against conservatives in hiring and other professional decisions. Inside Higher Ed has the scoop:

Numerous surveys have found that professors, especially those in some disciplines, are to the left of the general public. But those same — and other — surveys have rarely found evidence that left-leaning academics discriminate on the basis of politics…

A new study, however, challenges that assumption — at least in the field of social psychology… Just over 37 percent of [social psychologists] surveyed said that, given equally qualified candidates for a job, they would support the hiring of a liberal candidate over a conservative candidate. Smaller percentages agreed that a “conservative perspective” would negatively influence their odds of supporting a paper for inclusion in a journal or a proposal for a grant.

Here’s an interesting thing though… social psychology as a field of research is heavily involved in studying implicit biases. And there is a long tradition in social psych of studies showing that people do not have access to the psychological processes that produce these biases and cannot even recognize that they have biases.

Here’s an example of the kind of questions used for evidence of bias:

For the next set of questions, we are interested in what you think YOU WOULD DO in specific situations.

1. If you were reviewing a research grant application that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the grant application?

[Other questions dealt with reviewing papers, hiring, etc. Respondents were given a 7-point scale, and the authors categorized any response at or above the midpoint -- labeled "somewhat" -- as indicating a willingness to discriminate.]

How is a good social psychologist supposed to answer this question? If you believe in the IAT, Wilson & Nisbett, etc. and you are committed to trying to give the most accurate answer that you can, then I think one very defensible conclusion to derive from those theories is that yes, you are at least somewhat likely to discriminate. And because your training would tell you to be skeptical of your intuitions and introspections, you could reach that conclusion even if you fervently believe you would never intentionally discriminate, and even if your past behavior has always appeared (to you) to be completely fair.

Is that what some of the respondents were doing — giving expert predictions rather than personal responses? I have no idea. But I find it hard to rule out. And I think it’s enough of a possibility to raise serious concerns about labeling responses to that question as “willingness to discriminate.” Many social psychologists who study implicit bias believe that a lot of discriminatory behavior happens apart from, or even in opposition to, what people are “willing” (intending) to do. And the survey question doesn’t ask about willingness, it asks about probable behavior (“what you think YOU WOULD DO,” caps in the original). To a layperson, that distinction might seem like hairsplitting. To a social psychologist, the difference is huge.

None of this is to knock the survey itself. I think Inbar and Lammers have given us a useful window into what social psychologists believe about political bias in their field (and as an aside, there’s lots of other interesting stuff in that paper besides the discrimination questions). But I’m not convinced that one can make a straightforward leap to inferring discriminatory behavior from this survey. Like a lot of research, the study raises more questions than it answers, and begs for followup studies with behavioral outcomes. My personal hunch is that it’s plausible that social psychologists’ political beliefs do influence their professional decisions. But if I put my scientist glasses on and evaluate this survey as a piece of empirical research, I’m just not sure that it really pins down a clear answer yet.

—–

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (in press). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Working paper available here.

8 Comments
  1. August 9, 2012 2:47 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. You are right that we can’t rule out the possibility that people are explicitly factoring the possibility of nonconscious or uncontrollable bias into their responses. I do think it’s not that likely, because we asked people for comments at the end of the study, and almost no one mentioned that this affected their answers. (One person referred to “possibly unintentionally” holding conservatives to a higher standard.) Conversely, lots of people gave reasons or justifications for their answers that showed they were interpreting those questions as “what would you deliberately decide to do.”

    But, I’m in complete agreement with you that these four questions are far from the final word on whether social psychologists actually would discriminate (and I’ve been trying to make that clear when I talk to the media about this study). I think they’re suggestive, and consistent with what conservatives in social psych say about facing a hostile environment, but more research looking at actual behavior is definitely called for.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava permalink*
    August 9, 2012 3:33 pm

    Thanks Yoel. In my own work I find it hard to draw conclusions from freefield comments — I find them useful to alert me to things I hadn’t thought of, but you’re at the mercy of what people feel motivated to say. But your summary of the freefield comments definitely adds some context and sounds like it supports your interpretation.

    A couple of people seem to be posting about your study on the SPSP-discuss listserv – it’ll be interesting to see where that discussion goes too.

    If you’re right, then I guess the next question would be why the people who study implicit biases *didn’t* think they’d personally be biased…

  3. August 9, 2012 5:53 pm

    Hey Yoel, the study looks interesting, raises a lot of interesting questions. As I mentioned on Sanjay’s facebook page, one old study that comes to mind is the old LaPiere study from the 1930s in which he wrote letters asking a bunch of hotels across the country whether they would allow a Chinese guest. Even though almost all of them said they would not, when they actually showed up the hotels let them stay. I googled the study and here’s a quote from an article on it from Jeremy Dean (http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/03/attitude-behaviour-gap-why-we-say-one.php)

    “LaPiere himself argued that the problem lay in the questionnaire. The questions themselves cannot represent reality in all its confusing glory. What probably happened when people were asked if they accept Chinese people was that they conjured up a highly prejudiced view of the Chinese which bore little relation with what they were presented with in reality.

    Here was a polite, well-dressed, well-off couple in the company of a Stanford University professor. Not the rude, job-stealing, yobbish stereotype they had in mind when they answered the questionnaire.”

    If this is true, and the bias goes away when psychologists are reading an actual paper written by a conservative, or interacting with a conservative psychologist, it obviously wouldn’t make your findings any less important. But, to me, it’s still an interesting follow-up question. We tend to have pretty caricatured views of our political adversaries and their beliefs and perhaps when we meet them in person things are different than in the abstract. Or maybe they aren’t. Or maybe liberal psychologists would evaluate their papers fairly, but a conservative would still have to endure petty gossip by people who didn’t really know him or her and were still operating under the assumptions of their stereotypes.

    Good to have you back on this side of the Atlantic for a while!

  4. August 9, 2012 7:26 pm

    Dave! It’s great to be back :)

    Yes, the LaPiere paper is absolutely relevant. It may well be that the reason we get so much agreement on the discrimination questions is that people imagine the “worst possible conservative” and that when interacting with an actual in-the-flesh conservative things would be different. It also seems really plausible that, as you suggest, when you have less information about or personal contact with an individual you’d rely more on your stereotype (a fact that, if it were true, should certainly worry conservative applicants to psych PhD programs, and those looking for their first job post grad school).

    Also, Sanjay, as to why our respondents (possibly) didn’t take implicit bias into account–the last question right before that block was explicitly about overt bias: “Do you think colleagues would actively discriminate against conservative social/personality psychologists on the basis of their political beliefs?” (This was the last question in the “Perceived hostile climate for conservatives” block.) I think this may have framed the subsequent questions as being about intentional behavior as well. Of course there’s no way to be sure that this is what was responsible but it seems like a reasonable possibility to me.

  5. August 10, 2012 7:51 am

    This is a cool report. I was particularly interested in whether political ideologies shifted across specialization/area within the SPSP membership. There was no evidence of this effect in Study 1 or Study 2. I would be interested in seeing the means/SDs just to see if the trend is there.

    Rich Lucas and I wrote an essay in 2009 and we cited a tendency to equate personality research with conservative viewpoints (drawing on comments in Cronbach, 1957 and Zimbardo, 2004). We said it was a mistake to assume “contemporary personality psychologists are in fact right-wing ideologues.” It is nice to have data on this issue.

    I have worried that the climate in social/personality psychology for conservatives is not very pleasant. (Think about the kinds of off-hand comments people would make about Bush II in talks or the elation that surrounded the 2006 and 2008 elections.) I was guilty of this kind of behavior, to be sure. Hopefully, this can change.

    I also worry there is a little too much preoccupation with the potential implications of research for political issues when evaluating research ideas or findings. It should not be seen as an affront to common decency to question the evidence for validity of the IAT or the magnitude of stereotype threat effects. The fact that I feel compelled to note the last time I voted for a GOP candidate for major office was in 1990 when citing evidence for the predictive validity of IQ measures or talking about the possibilities of genetic influences on personality/behavior is kind of sad. (And just to be clear, I am NOT a conservative.)

  6. August 21, 2012 2:51 pm

    I broadly agree with Sanjay’s take here. I also think that the abstract is misleading when it says “The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate”.

  7. Sena Koleva permalink
    September 20, 2012 8:22 pm

    I am also concerned that the issue Sanjay points out partially drives the effect. I know that when I answered the survey that’s exactly what I was thinking as I kept reminding myself that I’m only human so whether I want/ like to or not, surely I would succumb to my implicit bias and I don’t even study implicit anything. I don’t think I entered anything in the open-ended comment and certainly not about this. I am sure the true effect is still there but I do think it might be exaggerated. At least acknowledging this possibility in the Limitations section would have been good. I’m curious, what percentage of the participants did provide open-ended responses?

  8. October 14, 2012 1:18 pm

    The take of this (conservative) layman is that that Dr Srivastava’s critique is quite valid. It’s hard for ME to conjure up an abstract “conservative” — I’m reminded of Locke’s discussion of what an abstract triangle might look like — and I’m probably better acquainted with the range of personality types and intellects within the conservative movement than a liberal academic would be.

    Is this conservative an ardent religious fundamentalist who is a 60 year old white male from Texas and visibly uncomfortable with those who are not of his race, gender and sexual orientation? Or is she a gay moderate Muslim woman who happens to believe in the free market and is opposed to affirmative action on principle, while thinking that social change must take place slowly and with due respect to tradition and custom?

    I’m pretty sure that there is discrimination against conservatives among liberal social scientists, just as there is, or would be, at a conservative university faced with a liberal — or better yet, a Marxist — candidate. How could there not be?

    While a good case can be made for political diversity in a department, not on grounds of fairness but on the grounds that having to be in frequent contact with someone competent in your field but who is critical of your assumptions is a good thing, it’s probably trumped by the desire not to face cognitive dissonance every time you sit down in the Senior Common Room (or the American equivalent).

    It’s also a good thing for undergraduates to hear a multiplicity of well-supported views from their professors. It helps them learn to think for themselves, rather than just thoughtlessly absorbing the current fashionable orthodoxy.

    Of course American conservatives, sadly, are the last people who can make an argument for political diversity, since most of them, or their political ancestors, cheered to the echo the shameful purging of leftist professors which took place in the US six decades ago.

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