Exposing Liberal Bias in Social Psychology

If you ask a social psychologist about their politics, you’ll likely hear this response: “I’m a good liberal democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know.” It’s no secret that the field of social psychology is dominated by those with a politically liberal bent.

Social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt (author of the book, The Happiness Hypothesis), gave a talk on Jan. 27th, 2011 at the annual convention of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology addressing this issue, unfortunately it wasn’t recorded live (the Power Point slides with a narration by Dr. Haidt are here).  In the talk, he asks the following question: Is the social psychology community, which is bound together by liberal values, blind to any ideas or findings that threaten its sacred values? Dr. Haidt ultimately claims that social psychology is not much different than any other tribal moral community and is not immune from being blinded by ideology.

One part of the talk I found particularly fascinating was about taboos within the intellectual community. Dr. Haidt used former Harvard President, Larry Summers’, as an example. Summers noted that there is a sex difference in the standard deviation of IQ scores between men and women and he used this information to formulate a hypothesis as to why men are overrepresented in math and science departments at the nation’s top universities. Dr. Haidt asserted the following about the situation.

He didn’t say that men are smarter. He didn’t say that men have higher IQs. He just noted the well known fact that the variance of male scores is larger, which means that there are more men at the very bottom, and at the very top. Might that contribute to the underrepresentation of women at the very top levels of science? If you’re standing outside the force field it’s a good hypothesis, certainly worth exploring. But if you’re inside the force field, it is not a permissible hypothesis. It is sacrilege. It blames the victims, rather than the powerful. The ensuing outrage led ultimately to his resignation as president of Harvard. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.

I thought this was an excellent point. I think there is an inherent danger in only accepting science that is “politically correct” because it further limits our understanding of the world around us. Instead of pursuing scientific truth, whatever it may be, certain ideas and conjectures are dismissed because they may potentially offend people.

We are all biased in the sense that we over emphasize evidence that reaffirms our deepest held beliefs in our moral tribal communities and ignore evidence that goes against our beliefs. In other words, for many people it’s only “science” if the results conform to our morals. It’s refreshing to see Dr. Haidt exploiting the liberal bias in social psychology since many people wrongly assume that it promotes pure and unbiased “free thinking”. I think Haidt puts it well when he says, “morality binds and blinds.”