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Why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? A closer look

Recently a paper was published by Duarte et al. (2015) discussing how political diversity will improve psychological science. The paper pointed out that while democratic/liberal views have historically dominated the field, where these views among academic psychologists outnumbered Republican/conservative views 4 to 1 about 20 years ago, today that ratio has skyrocketed to over 12 to 1. One of the questions the paper addresses is, why are there so few non-liberals in social psychology? The paper looks at several possibilities, some of which do appear to be contributors as supported by the data, and others that were not seen by the authors to be likely contributors. One of the possibilities in the latter group deserves a closer look.

One possibility as to why there are so few non-liberals in social psychology looked at by the authors was the effects of education on political ideology. Duarte et al. (2015) concluded that “[t]here is little evidence that education causes students to become more liberal.” It might be that “education” is too broad a category. If a factorial analysis were conducted, we would likely find that certain areas of education do indeed affect one’s political ideology. For example, if law, economics, earth science, political science, and social psychology are all under the umbrella of “education,” we might find that students of economics tend to become more conservative due to their education in that area, and social psychology students tend to become more liberal. If “education” is a single measurement, these possibly significant effects cancel each other out. Before we write off the effects of education, we need to look specifically at social psychology, to accurately determine if education in this discipline affects political ideology. To establish a conceptual basis for this possibility, we can begin by looking at conservative values.

While both liberals and conservatives share many of the same values, each group emphasizes certain values unique to their ideology. If we take a look at some conservative values listed on the website, we will see a general incompatibility with theories and findings of social psychology on some core issues. Let’s have a look at a few of these conservative values.

“Recognizing that evil does exist in the world, and making an effort to combat this force by whatever means necessary.” The conservative dichotomous relationship of good and evil is at odds with psychological science. Neuroscience shows us that brain abnormalities can lead to otherwise “good” people displaying behavior that most would call “evil.” Moral theorists such as Lawrence Kohlberg have demonstrated the complexities inherent in moral dilemmas that blur the lines between what might be referred to as good and evil. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has demonstrated how social factors can greatly influence a person’s behavior making them appear “evil”. Psychologists understand the biological, environmental, and social factors that affect behavior and are reluctant to label people as “evil” whereas conservatives are far more likely to adhere to a Biblical moral code where there are simply good and bad people. This conservative view of good and evil has a significant effect on policies related to the value of justice.

“Teaching self-help rather than dependence on government and others” and “emphasizing self-reliance and being able to keep the fruits of one’s labor.” Lao Tzu said, “give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” There is wisdom in this saying that serves as the foundation of policies that help many people who are in need—but not all people. Approximately 30 percent of the chronically homeless population has a serious mental illness most of whom lack the cognitive capacity to be an independent, self-reliant, and productive member of society. Social psychologists, specifically, are aware of the powerful social and environmental forces that prevent people from simply “picking themselves up by their bootstraps.” Understanding these forces could lead to more desire to help on an institutional level and fewer accusations of “laziness.”

“Following Christian principles.” According to a paper by Gross and Simmons (2009), over 50% of college and university psychology professors in America do not believe in any gods. This is the largest percentage of atheists among all other disciplines evaluated. While no causal relationship is implied, that is, we don’t know if atheists are drawn to the field of academic psychology or if the study of academic psychology makes it more difficult for people to hold on to theistic beliefs, we do know that the atheists overwhelmingly vote Democratic, perhaps due in part to the increased religiosity of the right. As an atheist, it is difficult to support a party whose candidates want to “bring Jesus back in government and schools,” vote against gay marriage because of “Biblical values,” choose to go to war because God told them to, and overall support actions and policies that prohibit equal expressions of other religions—or no religion.

So why the jump in the last 20 years? It would reason that the above points would be just as applicable 20 years ago when liberal psychology academics only outnumbered conservative psychology academics 4 to 1. This can be explained by the drastically changing scientific and religious landscapes. First let’s look at religion.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, Christianity has been declining sharply in America (down 7.8% since 2007) as non-Christians and the group that comprises those who identify as “unaffiliated” continue to grow (up 7.9% since 2007). Research from Pew also shows more long-term trends with the highly religious (evangelicals) increasingly voting Republican. As the conservative/Republican voters become more religious, this religiosity is reflected in the actions of the politicians who represent them.

Anti-science sentiments can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Academic psychologists, although not trained in every scientific discipline, tend to appreciate the scientific process and respect scientific consensus and the conclusions by respectable organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Within the last decade, the conservative candidates overwhelmingly have been supporting positions that are contrary to the scientific community at large, specifically with denying evolution, denying human-influenced climate change, and insisting that vaccines cause autism. Academic training as a scientist makes it very difficult to accept these contrary views. Because these views have major real-world implications, supporting a candidate who holds these contrary views would not be easy.

The question is, does being educated in the field of social psychology contribute to the fact that there so few non-liberals in social psychology? I believe the reasons discussed are strong enough reasons to warrant more research. If education in the field of social psychology is, in fact, a significant contributor, then the solution to the problem of political diversity in psychology gets more complicated. Are social psychology professors/curriculums providing biased information not aligned with reality that results in students adopting more liberal ideas? Or are the findings, theories, and facts of social psychology influencing students political views? Determining if and how much of a contributing factor education in social psychology might be when it comes to the number of non-liberals in social psychology will help us to ask better questions, which will provide us with better answers.


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