Bias in social psychology

Via Twitter, a new study suggesting a large body of social psychology research may be seriously biased. The abstract, with my emphasis:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. Study 1 involves the domain specificity of a self-report questionnaire related to complexity (dogmatism). By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others. Overall, this large dataset calls into question the typical interpretation that conservatives are less complex than liberals in a domain-general way.

This immediately made me think of another recent paper about the lack of political diversity in social psychology [summarized by one of the authors here]. The abstract of that paper, with my emphasis:

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity – particularly diversity of viewpoints – for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: (1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years. (2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike. (3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking. (4) The underrepresentation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

For what little it’s worth, this fits with my subjective impressions about the current intellectual climate. In my experience the thought leaders on the left typically cannot even characterize libertarian ideas properly, much less understand them on a deeper level, and, perhaps secure in their dominance, are extremely dismissive of them and the people who hold them. We could hardly expect it to be be much better for people who don’t earn a living by research and instruction, and a quick perusal of just about any corner of the internet will confirm this pessimism. To a lesser extent the same thing seems to happen with conservative ideas, although I admit I pay less attention to these.

The problem, of course, is that the marketplace of ideas only works if it’s competitive. If the academic climate is dogmatic and hostile to minority positions, refusing to engage with them, how could we expect the ideas that emerge to be the strongest?

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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