October 6, 2015

Study Finds Bias in Social Psychology Community

Print More


Prof. Stephen J. Ceci and Prof. Wendy M. Williams, human development, have responded to a paper in the most recent edition of Brain and Behavioral Sciences that suggests the ideological makeup of social psychologists has gone too far left.


Stephen J. Ceci

The paper — written by a team of five liberal-identified social psychologists including José L. Duarte, Arizona State University, psychology — reports that the proportion of self-described liberals to conservatives in psychology is currently around 12 to 1, up from the 4 to 1 ratio preceding the 1990s. The authors posit three manners in which this polarity may mar social psychology: the dispersion of faulty and demeaning views towards conservative individuals, the refusal to study topics that may run in the face of liberal ideologies of social progress and the implanting of ideology into theory.

Ceci says he has encountered these roadblocks firsthand.

“For quite some time there has been a censorious mood in the social science community,” Ceci said. “There is a bias against findings that go against the dominant bias narrative … by this I mean biases of all stripes.”

Referring to a previous study he conducted, Ceci said he found that these biases are often political.

“My colleagues and I found that university human subjects committees were more likely to reject a treatment of human participants if they believed it could undermine racial, ethnic or gender assumptions than the identical treatment for obese participants,” he said. “Thus it was not the treatment itself but its implications for political interventions that mattered.”

The evidence presented in the Duarte paper paints a similar picture — the authors point to a 1978 study carried out by self-proclaimed conservative social psychologist Clark McCauley that demonstrated accuracy of social stereotypes. Though the results were further supported by numerous independent studies, Duarte et al. point out that for years, the extremely progressive field refused to address such a discomforting question.

According to Duarte, “a conservative social psychologist asked a question nobody else thought (or dared) to ask.”

But Ceci found out that even if a psychologist asks contentious questions, the pushback at the end can be just as great as that at the beginning.

Speaking of a recent paper he and Williams published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing a 2 to 1 preference for women in STEM-related hiring, Ceci said the findings were “met with immediate and fierce pushback.”

“Hundreds of comments assailed our study for all sorts of allegedly methodological flaws. I say ‘allegedly’ because none were valid, something we repeatedly pointed out in responses we wrote to these critics,” Ceci said. “The irony was that they held out a similar study to ours as being rigorous, obviously unaware that our study used the same methodology but with a sample six times larger and far more representative.”

This is precisely an effect brought up by Duarte: it is an established principle in social psychology that individuals are more likely to accept — and seek out — evidence that bolsters their own preexisting notions. Such an effect is known as confirmation bias and has an even stronger effect when the topic may elicit issues surrounding group identity and moral emotions, according to the BBS paper.

“Critics were angry and panicked by our findings and grasped at any straws they could to create the impression it was flawed whereas when the same methods were used to support the opposite claim, they not only were unchallenged, but they were heralded for their rigor,” Ceci said regarding the STEM hiring study.

Avoiding pitfalls such as confirmation bias is one reason the BBS paper calls for more distinguished efforts to recruit those with right-leaning ideologies into the field. Furthermore, the authors point out that diversity of all types — sexual, racial and ideological — is necessary for establishing a system of checks and balances within the field of social psychology.

Duarte and his team detail numerous aspects that may be influencing social psychology’s political polarity, including a hostile climate for and general discrimination against conservatives.

The article points to a 2012 study showing that, when asked if they feel that there is hostility towards their political ideology within their field, 82 percent of conservative Society for Personality and Social Psychology discussion list members responded “yes” (half of that number responding “very much”), while only 7 percent of liberals responded “yes.” In the same study, 82 percent of liberal social psychologists who responded to a survey indicated that they would be prejudiced against a conservative applying for an academic position, while 83 percent of conservatives responded that they would have no prejudice against a liberal applying for a position.

Are there signs of anti-conservative discrimination here at Cornell? Ceci believes so.

“Last year my co-instructor and I asked our class if they perceived any pressures or biases against them based on their political or religious views and several said they did and were intimidated from speaking out in discussions,” Ceci said. Still, Ceci called for further studies into the matter, echoing his and Williams’ call for an even more encompassing study in their response to the Duarte et al. paper.

“It is something that needs to be studied in a comprehensive canvass of Cornell undergrads,” he said.

The Duarte paper, entitled “Political diversity will improve social psychological science,” was accompanied by 33 accompanying responses from academics around the globe.