Does Social Psychology Have a “Liberal Bias”?


In The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova explores the ideas of Jonathan Haidt, who argues that the field of social psychology has a broad bias against conservative thinkers. One case examined in the article involves psychological evaluations of political protesters.

“In 1975, Stephen Abramowitz and his colleagues sent a fake manuscript to eight hundred reviewers from the American Psychological Association — four hundred more liberal ones (fellows of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and editors of the Journal of Social Issues) and four hundred less liberal (social and personality psychologists who didn’t fit either of the other criteria),” writes Konnikova. “The paper detailed the psychological well-being of student protesters who had occupied a college administration building and compared them to their non-activist classmates. In one version, the study found that the protesters were more psychologically healthy. In another, it was the more passive group that emerged as mentally healthier. The rest of the paper was identical. And yet, the two papers were not evaluated identically. A strong favorable reaction was three times more likely when the paper echoed one’s political beliefs—that is, when the more liberal reviewers read the version that portrayed the protesters as healthier.”

This kind of finding is reflective of broader research, explains Konnikova, that has found journal peer reviewers generally biased towards their own beliefs. “One early study had psychologists review abstracts that were identical except for the result, and found that participants ‘rated those in which the results were in accord with their own beliefs as better.’ Another found that reviewers rejected papers with controversial findings because of ‘poor methodology’ while accepting papers with identical methods if they supported more conventional beliefs in the field. Yet a third, involving both graduate students and practicing scientists, showed that research was rated as significantly higher in quality if it agreed with the rater’s prior beliefs.”

With all of this in mind, if most social psychologists admit to being “liberal” on social issues, asks Konnikova, what does that mean for social psychology research?

Is Social Psychology Biased Against Republicans? (The New Yorker, October 30, 2014)