Social Science

Political — or politicized? — psychology

Scientists combat the charge of ideological bias

March 8, 2011

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.”


About the Author

Lena Groeger

Lena Groeger studied biology and philosophy at Brown University and is especially interested in the intersection of these two fields. After working as a graphic designer for Brown Health Education, she decided to think outside the poster and explore new means of communication, which led her to SHERP. She’s excited to write about the multidisciplinary questions of science and ethics for the general public. Visit her web site at



Tannis says:

The problem here is that bloggers are much more likely to read the reporting of papers in the media than the papers themselves. The media treatment is very likely to over-simplify the results and cast them in the light of some current ideological dispute, which people then take to be something that was in the research.

For instance, there was a paper published that looked at startle response (ie, how much people flinched, SCR readings, etc) when participants were presented with frightening images. People who took more defensive positions on a variety of issues showed higher startle reflexes, and people who took less defensive positions showed lower startle reflexes. “Defensive position” generally correlates with conservatism.

The media, of course, reported this as “OMG GUISE CONSERVATIVE R MOAR SCARED THAN LIBERAL!!11!!” and conservative bloggers everywhere went into convulsions of misguided outrage instead of bothering to read the actual study. If they had done so, they would have found that the authors were making no value judgments about conservatives or liberals (neither higher-startle nor lower-startle participants were seen as having an “abnormal” or “flawed” response) and the point of the study was to examine the relationship between physiological responses to stimuli and political responses to stimuli. In fact, a major goal (once again, stated in the paper) was to further political understanding and discourse by showing people that different political perspectives exist in our society. That doesn’t make for a very entertaining article or blog post, unfortunately.

Milan Moravec says:

An example of what is offensive to liberal University of California Berkeley but what is true and why. The author who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.
Just how widespread is the budget crisis at University of California Berkeley? University of California Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) engaged some expensive ($7.2 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. Merely cutting out inefficiencies will not have the effect desired. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC President, Chairman of the UC Board of Regents Gould, California Legislators to jolt Cal back to life, applying some simple oversight check-and-balance management practices. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donors, benefactors await Cal senior management’s transformation.

UC Berkeley public reprimand, censure: NCAA places Chancellor Birgeneau’s men’s basketball program on probation

The author who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.

(UC Berkeley ranking tumbles from 2nd best. The reality of UC Berkeley relative decline is clear. In 2004, for example, the London-based Times Higher Education ranked UC Berkeley the second leading research university in the world, just behind Harvard; in 2009 that ranking had tumbled to 39th place. By 2011 the ranking had not returned to 2nd best)

when the blind man looks at an elephant with a preconceived opinion as to what it will look like and with the certainty of his superior intellect, he will almost certainly find evidence that supports his opinion and to announce it as fact.

Many of the phenotypic character traits ascribed to personality dimensions may be re-framed as phenotypic character traits emblematic of temperament. Though most psychologists avoid interpretations of phenomena dependent upon gene expression, temperament is generally considered in the psychological literature, including introductory psychology textbooks, to be a genetically correlated complex of features. It seems possible, then, that the traits associated with political persuasion are influenced, directly or indirectly, by individual genotype. Of course, it is understood that there is no direct relationship between genotype and phenotype and that numerous factors (e.g., developmental effects, pleitropy, epistasis, methylation) may influence whether genes are or are not expressed.

Kapitano says:

So this is really a story about how difficult it is to find morally neutral adjectives that describe personality in English.

Kathy Mulholland-Isabell says:

If we just looked at startle reflex, it wouldn’t be a good measure of my political leanings at all. I have rather severe PTSD and must take daily medication to avoid having a heart attack over dropping a spoon on the floor. (If the dogs knocks a chair over, I’m on my knees clutching my chest.)

Now, that bit about the pre-schoolers is more on the mark. Though I was never in any way dominating, I was certainly self-reliant, energetic, and resilient — even in the face of severe and persistent bullying that lasted from first grade through the first couple of years of high school. I was certainly vulnerable, but not easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid nor inhibited.

I was also raised in a home which taught that people of any race, economic status, and religion were equal; and to treat everyone the same no matter who they were. There was no room for inequality, superiority nor hatred in my formative years as defined by my parents’ values — which (parents’ values) might just be more meaningful than anything innate in children’s psychological makeup, barring mental illness or sociopathy.

If my parents’ values have made me a liberal, then perhaps that explains why I am an extreme one — moreso than either of my parents. Some would even call me a socialist. OK, fine.

I’m proud to be a person who doesn’t hate others, doesn’t get angry or criticize people for being poor, for lacking education, for not having a job, for being gay, for speaking imperfect English, for being from another country, for having an addiction or for having a disability. That kind of bashing I will leave to my conservative fellows.

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