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Understanding the Values of a Social Psychologist

"Truth has a well-known liberal bias." —Stephen Colbert

Key points

  • Social scientists and psychologists have been accused of "liberal bias" but with little empirical evidence.
  • Being inclusive of extreme worldviews in an effort to eliminate ideological bias in research is not healthy for science.
  • The duty of a social psychologist is to investigate the truth behind human thriving.

By John T. Jost

The author of the first textbook in Social Psychology, William McDougall, who served on the faculties of Oxford, Harvard, and Duke University, wrote that: “We may fairly ascribe the incapacity of the Negro race to form a nation to the lack of men endowed with the qualities of great leaders, even more than to the lower level of average capacity.” A century later, social psychologists have achieved a fairly robust commitment to liberal-democratic tolerance and egalitarian values that McDougall and his contemporaries could not have imagined and that, indeed, exceeds that of the general population today. This is not something to be taken lightly, let alone resented or squandered. It is something we should be proud of.

In a highly publicized article, Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, and Tetlock (2015) scold contemporary social psychologists for promoting equality and addressing societal problems like racial and sexual prejudice (including implicit prejudice), economic inequality, and skepticism about anthropogenic climate change. They pine for the 1950s, when a higher percentage of academics were conservative, and appear not to realize (or care) that academic ranks at that time were highly populated with upper-class and upper-middle-class White men, like McDougall—much more so than today (Karabel, 2005). This almost surely helps to explain why professors used to be more conservative than they are now—not to mention the fact that the party of Trump has little in common with the party of Eisenhower or Hoover. Increasingly, the Republican Party has become inhospitable to social scientists, much more than the other way around.

Social psychologists and "liberal bias"

After the horrors of World War II, the leaders of social psychology—including Kurt Lewin and Gordon Allport—exhibited “a deep concern with human injustice, especially the evil of ethnic prejudice” (Smith, 1969). In this they were opposed, often staunchly, by those who identified themselves as “politically conservative.”

It is worth recalling, for instance, that Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma—a social scientific treatise on racial prejudice that was cited approvingly in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended segregation in the schools—was denounced by a Senator from Mississippi and in numerous Southern newspapers as a member of the “international Communist conspiracy.” Thus, Allport found it necessary to point out that prejudice is not “the invention of liberal intellectuals” and that it “is simply an aspect of mental life that can be studied as objectively as any other.” These days, many on the right appear eager to dismiss two or three decades of scientific research on implicit prejudice as nothing more than ideological bias (Jost, 2019).

It helps to get some perspective on this issue to realize that mainstream psychologists have not only been criticized for being “too liberal” (Duarte et al., 2015; Redding, 2001; Tetlock, 1994). Over the years, psychologists have also been criticized for hewing too closely to an ideological agenda that is either timidly centrist (Stone, 1980) or conservative and defensive of the status quo (Fine, 2012; Fox, 1999; Prilleltensky, 1994; Parker, 2007; Sampson, 1983).

Personally, I find these critiques to have more substance: There are system-justifying biases in psychology, as in other professions. In the long run, however, these critiques have had little or no effect on scientific practice, and maybe that is for the best. Thus far, the attacks on “liberal bias” have produced no genuine empirical discoveries and have obfuscated a great many issues. It does not help that they are philosophically incoherent, as when critics assert that it is impossible for human beings to conduct science without allowing their personal values to influence the process, while at the same time attacking individual scientists in ad hominem ways for failing to do that which they have declared impossible. The notion that we should put all of the “biases” in play at once because they will somehow magically cancel each other out strikes me as naïve at best. You don’t get closer to the truth by mixing better observations with worse ones.

The question of ideological diversity

It is often asserted—without any evidence—that ideological diversity is necessarily beneficial to the advancement of science, but this is plainly false. It is untenable, for instance, to suggest that social psychology, which is entrusted with the scientific study of racism, would be better off in any ethical or epistemological sense if the Society for Personality and Social Psychology contained more White Supremacists. Few actually believe that ideological diversity in and of itself is good for science, as if more (and more varied) ideology is always better. If they did, they would not be pushing for academia to embrace moderate conservatism, which is absolutely everywhere in American society: you really can’t miss it. They would be reaching out instead to fascists and Communists, for these are the truly rare “voices” in our society.

If, like me, you don’t want to see psychology conferences devolve into shouting matches between the far right and the far left, you don’t actually believe that ideological diversity is inherently (or necessarily) good for science. At long last, professional journalism is beginning to turn away from the absurd practice of “both-sideology” (as my friend Ben Saunders calls it), which elevates extreme, often implausible views to mainstream news coverage in a misguided bid for “fairness” and “balance”—as if the truth must occupy the midpoint between two (non-randomly chosen) endpoints. Now is hardly the time to roll out such a failing strategy in social and personality psychology.

Any talk of “ideological bias” is gibberish in the absence of clear standards for establishing “accuracy.” The fact that social psychologists are more liberal than the average American means nothing. After all, a YouGov survey in 2015 found that 41% of Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists would strenuously disagree, but does that make them “biased” against the “common man?" Perhaps social scientists understand something more than the average person about the causes of poverty and injustice, and this is why—in the marketplace of ideas—conservative ideas (about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, etc.) gain little traction. Every ideology is, after all, a theory, and some theories are (much) more accurate than others. Psychologists today are missing the kind of wisdom expressed by Silvan Tomkins, who noted, “Science will never be free of ideology, though yesterday’s ideology is today’s fact or fiction.”

The duty of social psychologists

At the end of the day, my conclusion resembles that reached by Lewin, Myrdal, Allport, Tomkins, and M. Brewster Smith (1969) in Social Psychology and Human Values. Smith pointed out that that social psychology “is inextricably concerned with human values” because it “must grapple with human experience in society.” Smith also warned of “the danger of a social psychology that is artificially divorced from human values” and called instead for “the development of a science of social man that begins to do justice to his humanity—a science of man that is for man, too.” This means tackling problems such as anthropogenic climate change, vast economic disparities under capitalism, racial injustices in policing and criminal justice systems, discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation—and many other things that a high proportion of so-called “conservatives” are reluctant to address. The duty of psychological scientists is to the truth about human thriving, not to the middle of the road, per se, not to some kind of Swiss-style neutrality, and certainly not to the far right, which is increasingly emboldened not only in the U.S. but throughout Europe and elsewhere.

These times are crying out for ethical leadership. But ethical leadership is not about trafficking in “both-sideology,” claiming there are “very fine people on both sides,” or tolerating intolerance. Nor is it about pandering to those who are in power or seeking to placate those who control institutional purse strings. It is about taking the right stand at the right time—equipped with the knowledge and the willingness to speak truth to power. What will historians 50 or 100 years from now say about the stand that social and personality psychologists are—or are not—taking today? That is the question that concerns me the most.

This post was also published in eDialogue, the Member Newsletter of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

References

Duarte, J., Crawford, J., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P.E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000430, e130

Fine, M. (2012). Resuscitating critical psychology for “revolting” times. Journal of Social Issues, 68, 416-438.

Fox, D.R. (1999). Psycholegal scholarship's contribution to false consciousness about injustice. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 9-30.

Jost, J.T. (2019). The IAT is dead, long live the IAT: Context-sensitive measures of implicit attitudes are indispensable to social and political psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28, 10-19.

Karabel, J. (2005). The chosen. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Parker, I. (2007). Revolution in psychology: Alienation to emancipation. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Redding, R. (2001). Sociopolitical diversity in psychology: The case for pluralism. American Psychologist, 56, 205-215.

Sampson, E.E. (1983). Justice and the critique of pure psychology. New York: Plenum.

Smith, M.B. (1969). Social psychology and human values. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Stone, W.F. (1980). The myth of left-wing authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 2, 3-19.

Tetlock, P. E. (1994). Political psychology or politicized psychology: Is the road to scientific hell paved with good moral intentions? Political Psychology, 15, 509-529.

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