Bias Against Conservatives: An Old Question Gets a New Twist

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 8, 2011

If I were a member of the psychology community, irrespective of my own political beliefs, I would be quite concerned if conservatives within my community felt as though they needed to hide their political orientation in order to be able to have successful careers. We shall see how members of the community react in response to this story:

Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

Dr. Haidt (pronounced height) told the audience that he had been corresponding with a couple of non-liberal graduate students in social psychology whose experiences reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s. He quoted — anonymously — from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal.

“I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”

This is a problem. This story reveals a great deal of mistrust and paranoia within the psychology community; mistrust and paranoia that can only be addressed by having the community assure conservative members that their political views will be respected, and that nothing will be done to set back their careers merely because some people may disagree with those views. Absent such assurances, we really aren’t going to see people in the psychology community–or in the rest of academia, for that matter–working with one another in an atmosphere of honesty and frankness. But don’t hold your breath for those assurances to be issued. And, to be perfectly blunt, even if they were issued, they would likely not be believed.

  • Bandit

    Do you really think with those assurances anything will change?

  • Anonymous

    Have you considered the possibility that the lack of conservatives in academia is an indictment of conservatism, not academia?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, and I dismissed it. Conservatives are quite intelligent–the condescending attitudes of ideological opponents notwithstanding–and the case for discrimination is quite strong. But thank you for the snarky contribution to the debate; it wouldn’t be complete without a rhetorical cheapshot from someone.

      • Anonymous

        The evidence for discrimination is strong, at least in fields like the humanities where one’s political views are difficult to extricate from one’s work and career prospects.

        So how to explain the lack of conservatives in hard sciences? Is a biologist, a mathematician or an astronomer so terrified of the potential for a casual political conversation around the watercooler to go so horribly awry that he is chased from his field? Or is it more likely that conservatives’ cultivation of a culture of ignorance and anti-intellectualism has consequences?

        • Anonymous

          You think that physicists, biologists, mathematicians, and astronomers don’t get political? You’ve obviously never been in academia. I realize, of course, that it feels nice and comfortable to stereotype those with whom you disagree–it’s like ideological comfort food–but you should be warned that your cultivation of a culture of ignorance has consequences.

          • Anonymous

            “You’ve obviously never been in academia.”

            Well, I have a BA and MA in history if that counts. I didn’t bring it up before because anecdotal evidence from my experience probably adds little to the debate. For what its worth, the students and faculty I studied with were definitely more liberal than not, but there were a few notable conservatives among both groups. I’m sure their views came under criticism more than others and maybe that was a disadvantage. However, my recollection was that standing out — even for taking controversial positions — could be more of an advantage than hewing to an orthodoxy.

            Who am I stereotyping? Conservatives? I never said that all conservatives are morons or something. I simply observed the fact that people in academia overwhelmingly identify as liberals or Democrats. Conservatives thus claim vindication of systemic bias and I disagree with their (and your) conclusion. If we are talking about the Radical Marxist Multiculturalist Gay Black Studies Department at Berkeley; fine. Engineering? I have a hard time believing that a conservative’s political views would really be detrimental to career advancement in that field.

            I am happy to hear that you are appalled by politicians who flirt with caveman anti-science views and assume this extends beyond 12-year-old statements from failed Democratic Presidential candidates.

            When I said that conservatives had cultivated a culture of anti-intellectualism, I of course did not mean that there has not been an intelligent conservative in human history. I meant that anti-intellectualism has — to any casual observer — obviously been an important part of conservative and GOP politics for several years.

            “After some more give and ake, Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, presents a five-page list of 192 economists and business school professors who oppose the plan. Bush isn’t impressed. “I don’t care what somebody on some college campus says,” Bush says.”

            Mining for Palin quotes would just be too easy.

        • Anonymous

          Of course, I should make clear that I am appalled when politicians play footsie with the anti-science crowd.

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