Political — or politicized? — psychology
Scientists combat the charge of ideological bias
Are you expressive, creative, curious and novelty seeking? Chances are, you’re a liberal.
Are you organized, conventional, reserved and neat? You’re probably a conservative.
The idea that your personal characteristics could be linked to your political ideology has intrigued political psychologists for decades. Numerous studies suggest that liberals and conservatives differ not only in their views toward government and society, but also in their behavior, their personality, and even how they travel, decorate, clean and spend their leisure time. In today’s heated political climate, understanding people on the “other side” — whether that side is left or right — takes on new urgency.
But as researchers study the personal side of politics, could they be influenced by political biases of their own?
Consider the following 2006 study by the late California psychologists Jeanne and Jack Block, which compared the personalities of nursery school children to their political leanings as 23-year olds. Preschoolers who went on to identify as liberal were described by the authors as self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating and resilient. The children who later identified as conservative were described as easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited and vulnerable.
The negative descriptions of conservatives in this study strike Jacob Vigil, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, as morally loaded. Studies like this one, he said, use language that suggests the researchers are “motivated to present liberals with more ideal descriptions as compared to conservatives.”
Most of the researchers in this field are, in fact, liberal. In 2007 UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute conducted a survey of faculty at four-year colleges and universities in the United States. About 68 percent of the faculty in history, political science and social science departments characterized themselves as liberal, 22 percent characterized themselves as moderate, and only 10 percent as conservative. Some social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, have charged that this liberal majority distorts the research in political psychology.
It’s a charge that John Jost, a social psychologist at New York University, flatly denies. Findings in political psychology bear upon deeply held personal beliefs and attitudes, he said, so they are bound to spark controversy. Research showing that conservatives score higher on measures of “intolerance of ambiguity” or the “need for cognitive closure” might bother some people, said Jost, but that does not make it biased.
“The job of the behavioral scientist is not to try to find something to say that couldn’t possibly be offensive,” said Jost. “Our job is to say what we think is true, and why.
Jost and his colleagues in 2003 compiled a meta-analysis of 88 studies from 12 different countries conducted over a 40-year period. They found strong evidence that conservatives tend to have higher needs to reduce uncertainty and threat. Conservatives also share psychological factors like fear, aggression, dogmatism, and the need for order, structure and closure. Political conservatism, they explained, could serve as a defense against anxieties and threats that arise out of everyday uncertainty, by justifying the status quo and preserving conditions that are comfortable and familiar.
The study triggered quite a public reaction, particularly within the conservative blogosphere. But the criticisms, according to Jost, were mistakenly focused on the researchers themselves; the findings were not disputed by the scientific community and have since been replicated. For example, a 2009 study followed college students over the span of their undergraduate experience and found that higher perceptions of threat did indeed predict political conservatism. Another 2009 study found that when confronted with a threat, liberals actually become more psychologically and politically conservative. Some studies even suggest that physiological traits like sensitivity to sudden noises or threatening images are associated with conservative political attitudes.
“The debate should always be about the data and its proper interpretation,” said Jost, “and never about the characteristics or motives of the researchers.” Phillip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. However, Tetlock thinks that identifying the proper interpretation can be tricky, since personality measures can be described in many ways.
“One observer’s ‘dogmatism’ can be another’s ‘principled,’ and one observer’s ‘open-mindedness’ can be another’s ‘flaccid and vacillating,’” Tetlock explained.
Richard Redding, a professor of law and psychology at Chapman University in Orange, California, points to a more general, indirect bias in political psychology. “It’s not the case that researchers are intentionally skewing the data,” which rarely happens, Redding said. Rather, the problem may lie in what sorts of questions are or are not asked.
For example, a conservative might be more inclined to undertake research on affirmative action in a way that would identify any negative outcomes, whereas a liberal probably wouldn’t, said Redding. Likewise, there may be aspects of personality that liberals simply haven’t considered. Redding is currently conducting a large-scale study on self-righteousness, which he suspects may be associated more highly with liberals than conservatives.
“The way you frame a problem is to some extent dictated by what you think the problem is,” said David Sears, a political psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People’s strong feelings about issues like prejudice, sexism, authoritarianism, aggression, and nationalism — the bread and butter of political psychology — may influence how they design a study or present a problem.
The indirect bias that Sears and Redding identify is a far cry from the liberal groupthink others warn against. But given that psychology departments are predominantly left leaning, it’s important to seek out alternative viewpoints and explanations, said Jesse Graham, a social psychologist at the University of Southern California. A self-avowed liberal, Graham thinks it would be absurd to say he couldn’t do fair science because of his political preferences. “But,” he said, “it is something that I try to keep in mind.”