Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
Are progressive academics openly hostile and discriminatory towards their conservative colleagues? Could such hostility help explain the well-known discrepancy between progressive* and conservative faculty members on college campuses?
Initial research published by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers in 2012 suggested that the answer to these questions is yes – at least among social and personality psychologists. Specifically, a sample of social and personality psychologists reported a greater willingness to actively discriminate against conservative colleagues. The small number of conservative social and personality psychologists sampled also reported experiencing a more hostile climate within their department.
Yet, there are a number of plausible hypotheses that can explain the ideological discrepancy between progressives and conservatives within academia. These hypotheses include:
- The self-selection hypothesis: Conservatives may self-select out of academia (see Gross, 2013) because for a variety of reasons that include being less interested in new ideas or possessing a greater desire for higher levels of income.
- The “birds of a feather flock together” hypothesis: People in general may be more attracted to “birds of a feather” and more likely to join organizations made up of “people like them” (see Schneider, Goldstein, & Smith, 1995).
- The ideological-conflict hypothesis: People in general are prejudiced towards and intolerant of ideologically dissimilar others (see Brandt, Reyna, Chambers, Crawford, & Wetherell, 2014).
Additionally, one important methodological criticism of Inbar and Lammers is that their survey assessed responses to conservatives and conservatively motivated research without assessing responses to progressives and progressively motivated research (see Skitka, 2012). New research by Nathan Honeycutt and Laura Freberg addressed this criticism in a sample not limited to social and personality psychologists. This research also allowed for an investigation of two of the hypotheses outlined above: The “birds of a feather flock together” hypothesis and the ideological-conflict hypothesis.
Briefly, the main findings reported by Honeycutt and Freberg were:
- Conservatives reported experiencing a more hostile climate than progressives or moderates.
- Both conservatives and progressives reported perceiving a more hostile climate for their colleagues who shared their political orientation.
- Progressive respondents reported greater willingness to discriminate against conservatives or conservatively motivated research when: reviewing papers for publication, reviewing grants for funding, considering who to invite for a symposium, and in hiring decisions. The willingness to discriminate against conservatives was strongest for hiring decisions.
- Conservative respondents reported greater willingness to discriminate against progressives or progressively motivated research when: reviewing papers for publication, reviewing grants for funding, considering who to invite for a symposium, and in hiring decisions. The willingness to discriminate against liberals was strongest for hiring decisions.
These findings replicate and extend those reported by Inbar and Lammers: Conservatives within academia reported experiencing a more hostile climate then their progressive and moderate counterparts. While progressives within academia may think conservative academics suffer from a “persecution complex” (see Honeycutt & Freberg, p. 7), the results of Honeycutt and Freberg suggest that a good number of progressive academics are willing to be discriminatory towards their more conservative colleagues. However, it is important to note that the results also indicate that conservatives within academia appear just as willing to be discriminatory towards their progressive colleagues, if given the opportunity:
“Both liberals and conservatives expressed a similar explicit willingness to discriminate against each other. These results support the ideological symmetry claims for prejudice and political bias and are inconsistent with social psychological research arguing that conservatives are more prejudiced and intolerant of others than are liberals (e.g., Amodio et al., 2007; Sibley & Duckitt, 2008)” (Honeycutt & Freberg, 2016, p. 6).
In other words, while progressives held prejudices towards conservatives, conservatives also held prejudices towards progressives. These findings support the ideological-conflict hypothesis (see Brandt et al., 2014). Within academia however, the ideological imbalance between progressives and conservatives makes it likely that progressive prejudice is more widespread within the academy than conservative prejudice.
Exposure to different viewpoints often results in increased tolerance (see Mutz, 2006). On the other hand, isolation from different viewpoints can lead to intolerance, group polarization and extremism (see Keating, Van Boven, & Judd, 2016; Sunstein, 2006; Sunstein, 2009). Although the academy may never achieve an equal balance of progressives and conservatives, the scholarship it produces will likely benefit from a greater diversity of viewpoints.
- Political diversity in social and personality psychology.
- Multifaceted problems: Liberal bias and the need for scientific rigor in self-critical research.
- The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives.
- Partisan underestimation of the polarizing influence of group discussion.
*Honeycutt and Freberg refer to those on the political left as liberals. This post refers to those on the political left as progressives.
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