Social Psychology, a Field with Only 8 Conservatives

Just how much viewpoint diversity do we have in social psychology? In 2011, nobody knew, so I asked 30 of my friends in the field to name a conservative. They came up with several names, but only one suspect admitted, under gentle interrogation, to being right of center.

A few months later I gave a talk at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in which I pointed out the field’s political imbalance and why this was a threat to the quality of our research.

I asked the thousand-or-so people in the audience to declare their politics with a show of hands, and I estimated that roughly 80% self-identified as “liberal or left of center,” 2% (I counted exactly 20 hands) identified as “centrist or moderate,” 1% (12 hands) identified as libertarian, and, rounding to the nearest integer, zero percent (3 hands) identified as “conservative or right of center.” That gives us a left-right ratio of 266 to one. I didn’t think the real ratio was that high; I knew that some conservatives in the audience were probably afraid to raise their hands.

Some of my colleagues questioned the validity of such a simple and public method, but Yoel Inbar and Yoris Lammers conducted a more thorough and anonymous survey of the SPSP email list later that year, and they too found a very lopsided political ratio: 85% of the 291 respondents self-identified as liberal overall, and only 6% identified as conservative.

That gives us our first good estimate of the left-right ratio in social psychology: fourteen to one. It’s a much more valid method than my “show of hands” (which was intended as a rhetorical device, not a real study). But still, we need more data, and we need to try more ways of asking the questions.

A new data set has come in. Bill von Hippel and David Buss surveyed the membership of the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. That’s a professional society composed of the most active researchers in the field who are at least five years post-PhD. It’s very selective – you must be nominated by a current member and approved by a committee before you can join. Von Hippel and Buss sent a web survey to the 900 members of SESP and got a response rate of 37% (335 responses). So this is a good sample of the mid-level and senior people (average age 51) who produce most of the research in social psychology.

Von Hippel and Buss were surveying the members’ views about evolution to try to understand the reasons why many social psychologists distrust or dislike evolutionary psychology. At the end of the survey, they happened to include a very good set of measures of political identity. Not just self-descriptions, but also whom the person voted for in the 2012 US Presidential election. And they asked nine questions about politically valenced policy questions, such as “Do you support gun control?” “Do you support gay marriage?” and “Do you support a woman’s right to get an abortion?”

In a demonstration of the new openness and transparency that is spreading in social psychology, Von Hippel and Buss sent their raw data file and a summary report to all the members of SESP, to thank us for our participation in the survey. They noted that their preliminary analysis showed a massive leftward tilt in the field – only four had voted for Romney. I then emailed them and asked if I could write up further analyses of the political questions and post them at HeterodoxAcademy. They generously said yes, and then went ahead and made all the relevant files available to the world at the Open Science Framework (you can download them all here).

So here are the results, on the political distribution only. (Von Hippel and Buss will publish a very interesting paper on their main findings about evolution and morality in a few months). There are three ways we can graph the data, based on three ways that participants revealed their political orientation.

1) Self descriptions of political identity: 36 to one.

2) Presidential voting: 76 to one.

3) Views on political issues: 314 to one.

This excerpt from Heterodox Academy, “New Study Indicates Existence of Eight Conservative Social Psychologists” is printed with permission.


Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

2 thoughts on “Social Psychology, a Field with Only 8 Conservatives”

  1. That’s a rather arrogant response: Only liberals care about alleviating personal challenges? Maybe for the most part conservatives living in rural environments help in other ways, such as through their churches. And as far as being “exposed to the mental anguish expressed by those who feel outside society,” conservatives from fly over country do feel outside the society portrayed by the elitist coastal establishment. But of course that counts for naught.

  2. Answers to questions asked to determine political stripe would be similar between liberals and educated, professionals who are conservative which is why you get such a skewed 314 to 1.

    On guns, we see an urban / rural divide – psychologist in this sample are more likely to be urban.

    On gay marriage, the objection is primarily religious, rather than medical or scientific which are fields that touch on psychology. Furthermore psychologists are exposed to the mental anguish expressed by those who feel outside society. Same goes for abortion.

    Instead of being concerned about the preponderance of liberal leanings in psychology, you may want to ask why so few conservatives pursue the profession. Perhaps it’s due to the focus on helping to alleviate, rather than punishing, personal challenges.

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