Can liberal academics study conservative ideology?

Recently, Jon Haidt gave a talk at the main social psychology conference about the statistically impossible lack of diversity in social psychology, meaning that the vast majority of social psychologists are liberal, with a smattering of libertarians or moderates and close to zero self-identified conservatives. This talk was covered in this New York Times article by John Tierney, and it has inspired many social psychologists I know to some degree of introspection about our discipline.  It has also led many who read the article to wonder why there are so many liberals in academia.  Is it a question of discrimination?  Self-selection?

As someone who studies political psychology, I have two main self-serving thoughts.  First, findings in political psychology would support the idea that most of this is due to self-selection.  We know that liberals score higher on measures like openness to experience, challenging the status quo, enjoying effortful thinking, having existential angst (searching for meaning) and placing a value on stimulation.  All of these findings are published and replicated in our YourMorals dataset.  These are all traits that can be framed as positive (enjoying new things, wanting to be an agent of change) and negative (disrespecting tradition, being narcissistic) in the ‘real world’, but are useful in academia.  Personally, I could be earning more money and likely doing something more objectively useful, but I like the stimulation of working in the world of ideas and it helps ease my existential angst.  This cluster of traits describes some part of most academics I know.

If you see the actual talk (video below), you’ll notice that Haidt presumes a fair degree of self-selection and does not set representativeness (e.g. 40% conservatives in the US means we should have 40% in psychology) as a goal, perhaps for this reason.

Still, much of the talk is about discrimination (e.g. the analogy of the closeted homosexual) and so I see why many bloggers might have picked up on the discrimination angle.  I am not saying that there is not some peer pressure exacerbated by the assumption that everyone in the room is liberal…but my experience is that self-selection causes that environment more than the reverse.  That does not mean it isn’t a problem.  It is and we should do something about it.

The main problem, from the perspective of someone who wants to understand political attitudes and ideology, is that it’s really hard to study something you have no experience with.  Imagine what a collective of non-parents would think of parenting from a completely outside perspective.  Giving up sleep, friends, leisure, and money for an infant that cannot even smile might seem delusional, which is exactly the way that some psychologists see conservative ideology…as a product of some kind of mental fault.  It is only from the inside that sometimes things make more sense.

Those of us who study ideology often have nobody on the inside of conservative movements to help us make sense of them.  It is for that reason that I’d love to see more research conducted by conservatives.  Conservatives don’t just have different perspectives on politics, but also in all sorts of other domains.  Until then, I’ll have to settle for befriending them wherever I can and plying them with liquor to get their inner thoughts.  As a liberal who wants to persuade conservatives, such understanding is essential, unless I simply want to cheerlead amongst people who already agree with me.

In some ways, it’s part of a larger problem in psychology where we ask relatively inexperienced (outside of academia) individuals to theorize about the nature of human experience.  Business school students are expected to have business experience to get into business school, yet social psychologists often have very limited experience with human social life before investigating it.  Given that, is it any wonder that many people feel that memoirs offer as much insight into the human condition as psychology journals?  Having a diverse set of experiences and perspectives within political psychology can only make our work that much more interesting.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. you can read Jon’s official piece along with many reactions of other more prominent psychologists on Edge.



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