Does the Field of Social Psychology Have an Anti-Conservative Bias?

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, November 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

Does the Field of Social Psychology Have an Anti-Conservative Bias?


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


In a provocative article published online last week in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova ("Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes") asks, "Is social psychology biased against Republicans?"

She summarizes the evidence for both a "yes" and a "no" answer to that question, but mostly focuses on the findings that suggest an anti-conservative bias does exist.

For example, she cites a 2012 study that surveyed 800 social psychologists. It found that significant percentages of social psychologists have conservative viewpoints (on some issues), but that both they and their ideas face significant obstacles. Here's how the two Dutch authors of that study summed up those findings:

First, although only 6% [of the social psychologists surveyed] described themselves as conservative "overall," there was more diversity of political opinion on economic issues and foreign policy. [Eighteen percent described themselves as conservative on economic issues, for example.] Second, respondents significantly underestimated the proportion of conservatives among their colleagues. Third, conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, they are right to do so: In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.

This bias may influence the design, execution, evaluation and interpretation of research, says Konnikova. But, as she also points out, there are other biases that may have similar influences. Over the years, research has suggested that peer reviewers -- professionals within the same field who evaluate a paper to determine whether it merits being published -- judge research more highly when it is attached to a famous institution than to a lesser known one. In addition, studies authored by men tend to receive higher evaluations than those authored by women when the reviewers are male -- and vice versa. (Much of the research Konnikova cites about these biases is two or three decades old. It would be interesting to see if such biases continue to exist today -- and, if so, to what extent.)

'A bias of belief'

But, says Konnikova, there is another type of bias, which is even less visible: a "bias of belief." She explains:

Here, the question isn't about things that can be easily tested as empirical fact, like whether the sky is green or whether French fries make you skinny. They're about the nebulous areas of philosophical and ideological leanings about the way the world should be.

One early study had psychologists review abstracts that were identical except for the result, and found that participants "rated those in which the results were in accord with their own beliefs as better." Another found that reviewers rejected papers with controversial findings because of "poor methodology" while accepting papers with identical methods if they supported more conventional beliefs in the field. …

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