Social Psychology and Human Values

We (Inbar and Jost) were asked by SPSP to write short opinion pieces about why social-personality psychologists are predominantly liberal and what, if anything, should be done about it. We were also asked to keep our pieces under 500 words. As you can see, we did not succeed in this respect, but we hope that by going somewhat over our allotted space, we were able to more clearly articulate where we agree and disagree about these issues. We also believe that the stakes justify it -- we write this one day before the midterm elections and in the midst of an extraordinary time in U.S. politics. Right now, trustworthy social science research on politically charged topics is vital. We hope that the SPSP membership finds this exchange useful and welcome any constructive comments. In a future issue of the newsletter we plan to write something together to lay out even more explicitly our areas of agreement and disagreement. Read Yoel Inbar's piece here.

Truth has a well-known liberal bias.

-Stephen Colbert

The author of the first textbook in Social Psychology, the celebrated William McDougall, who served on the faculties of Oxford, Harvard, and Duke University, once wrote that: “We may fairly ascribe the incapacity of the Negro race to form a nation to the lack of men endowed with the qualities of great leaders, even more than to the lower level of average capacity.” A century later, social psychologists have achieved a fairly robust commitment to liberal-democratic tolerance and egalitarian values that McDougall and his contemporaries could not have imagined and that, indeed, exceeds that of the general population today. This is not something to be taken lightly, let alone resented or squandered. It is something we should be proud of.

In a highly publicized article, Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, and Tetlock (2015) scold contemporary social psychologists for promoting equality and addressing societal problems like racial and sexual prejudice (including implicit prejudice), economic inequality, and skepticism about anthropogenic climate change. They pine for the 1950s, when a higher percentage of academics were conservative. They appear not to realize (or care) that academic ranks at that time were highly populated with upper-class and upper-middle class White men, like McDougall—much more so than today (Karabel, 2005). This almost surely helps to explain why professors used to be more conservative than they are now—not to mention the fact that the party of Trump has precious little in common with the party of Eisenhower (or Hoover). Increasingly, the Republican Party has become inhospitable to social scientists, much more than the other way around.

After the horrors of World War II, the leaders of social psychology—including Kurt Lewin and Gordon Allport—exhibited “a deep concern with human injustice, especially the evil of ethnic prejudice” (Smith, 1969, p. 4). In this they were opposed, often staunchly, by those who identified themselves as “politically conservative.” It is worth recalling, for instance, that Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma—a social scientific treatise on racial prejudice that was cited approvingly in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that ended segregation in the schools—was denounced by a Senator from Mississippi and in numerous Southern newspapers as a member of the “international Communist conspiracy.” Thus, Allport found it necessary to point out that prejudice is not “the invention of liberal intellectuals” and that it “is simply an aspect of mental life that can be studied as objectively as any other.” These days, many on the right appear eager to dismiss two or three decades of scientific research on implicit prejudice as nothing more than ideological bias (Jost, in press).

It helps to get some perspective on this issue to realize that mainstream psychologists have not only been criticized for being “too liberal” (Duarte et al., 2015; Redding, 2001; Tetlock, 1994). Over the years, psychologists have also been criticized for hewing too closely to an ideological agenda that is either timidly centrist (Stone, 1980) or conservative and defensive of the status quo (Fine, 2012; Fox, 1999; Prilleltensky, 1994; Parker, 2007; Sampson, 1983). Personally, I find these critiques to have more substance: there are system-justifying biases in psychology, as in other professions. In the long run, however, these critiques have had little or no effect on scientific practice, and maybe that is for the best. Thus far, the attacks on “liberal bias” have produced no genuine empirical discoveries and they have obfuscated a great many issues. It does not help that they are philosophically incoherent, as when critics assert that it is impossible for human beings to conduct science without allowing their personal values to influence the process, while at the same time attacking individual scientists in ad hominem ways for failing to do that which they have declared impossible. The notion that we should put all of the “biases” in play at once, because they will somehow magically cancel each other out strikes me as naïve at best. You don’t get closer to the truth by mixing better observations with worse ones.  

It is often asserted—without any evidence whatsoever—that ideological diversity is necessarily beneficial to the advancement of science, but this is plainly false. It is untenable, for instance, to suggest that social psychology, which is entrusted with the scientific study of racism, would be better off in any ethical or epistemological sense if the Society for Personality and Social Psychology contained more White Supremacists. No one actually believes that ideological diversity in and of itself is good for science, as if more (and more varied) ideology is always better. If they did, they would not be pushing for academia to embrace moderate conservatism, which is absolutely everywhere in American society: you really can’t miss it! They would be reaching out instead to fascists and Communists, for these are the truly rare “voices” in our society.

If, like me, you don’t want to see SPSP panels devolve into shouting matches between the far right and the far left, you don’t actually believe that ideological diversity is inherently (or necessarily) good for science. At long last, professional journalism is beginning to turn away from the absurd practice of “both-sidesism” (or, as my friend Ben Saunders calls it, “both-sideology”) which elevates extreme, often implausible views to mainstream news coverage in a misguided bid for “fairness” and “balance”—as if the truth must occupy the midpoint between two (non-randomly chosen) endpoints. Now is hardly the time to roll out such a failing strategy in social and personality psychology.

Any talk of “ideological bias” is gibberish in the absence of clear standards for establishing “accuracy.” The fact that social psychologists are more liberal than the average American means nothing. After all, a YouGov survey in 2015 found that 41% of Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed at one time in history. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists would strenuously disagree, but does that make them “biased” against the “common man”? Perhaps social scientists understand something more than the average person about the causes of poverty and injustice, and this is why—in the marketplace of ideas—conservative ideas (about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, etc.) gain little traction. Every ideology is, after all, a theory, and some theories are (much) more accurate than others. Psychologists today are missing the kind of wisdom expressed by Silvan Tomkins when he noted that: “Science will never be free of ideology, though yesterday’s ideology is today’s fact or fiction.”

At the end of the day, my conclusion resembles that reached by Lewin, Myrdal, Allport, Tomkins, and M. Brewster Smith (1969) in Social Psychology and Human Values. Smith pointed out that that social psychology “is inextricably concerned with human values” because it “must grapple with human experience in society.” Smith also warned of “the danger of a social psychology that is artificially divorced from human values” and called instead for “the development of a science of social man that begins to do justice to his humanity—a science of man that is for man, too.” This means tackling problems such as anthropogenic climate change, vast economic disparities under capitalism, racial injustices in our policing and criminal justice systems, discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation—and many other things that a shockingly high proportion of so-called “conservatives” are reluctant to address, to put it politely. The duty of psychological scientists is to the truth about human thriving, not to the middle of the road per se, not to some kind of Swiss-style neutrality, and certainly not to the far right, which is increasingly emboldened not only in the U.S. but throughout Europe and elsewhere.

As I write this, it has been an eventful week in an eventful year or two in the U.S. First, 12 prominent liberals (including 2 former presidents) received pipe bombs in the mail, apparently sent by an ardent supporter of President Trump. In response, several “conservative” celebrities claimed that liberals sent the bombs to themselves to gain sympathy before the mid-term election. Next, a White man shot 2 African Americans in a grocery store parking lot in Kentucky in what appears to be a racially motivated attack. And, to top it all off, a right-wing extremist with a track record of online anti-Semitism killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. These times are crying out for ethical leadership. But ethical leadership is not about trafficking in “both-sideology,” claiming there are “good people on both sides,” or tolerating intolerance. Nor is it about pandering to those who are in power or seeking to placate those who control the institutional purse strings. It is about taking the right stand at the right time—equipped with knowledge and the willingness to speak truth to power. What will historians fifty or a hundred years from now say about the stand that social and personality psychologists are—or are not—taking today? That is the question that concerns me the most.

John T. Jost, New York University


Duarte, J., Crawford, J., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P.E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000430, e130

Fine, M. (2012). Resuscitating critical psychology for “revolting” times. Journal of Social Issues, 68, 416-438.

Fox, D.R. (1999). Psycholegal scholarship's contribution to false consciousness about injustice. Law and Human Behavior23, 9-30.

Jost, J.T. (in press). The IAT is dead, long live the IAT: Context-sensitive measures of implicit attitudes are indispensable to social and political psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Karabel, J. (2005). The chosen. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Parker, I. (2007). Revolution in psychology: Alienation to emancipation. London, UK: Pluto Press.

Prilleltensky, I. (1994). The morals and politics of psychology: Psychological discourse and the status quo. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Redding, R. (2001). Sociopolitical diversity in psychology: The case for pluralism. American Psychologist, 56, 205-215.

Sampson, E.E. (1983). Justice and the critique of pure psychology. New York: Plenum.

Smith, M.B. (1969). Social psychology and human values. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Stone, W.F. (1980). The myth of left-wing authoritarianism. Political Psychology, 2, 3-19.

Tetlock, P. E. (1994). Political psychology or politicized psychology: Is the road to scientific hell paved with good moral intentions? Political Psychology, 15, 509-529.