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To Follow the Data is Neither Liberal nor Conservative

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Originally posted on September 29, 2015.

My last blog essay reported surveys that show social psychologists are mostly political liberals. But I also noted that “To our credit, we social psychologists check our presumptions against data. We have safeguards against bias. And we aim to let the chips fall where they may.”

Fresh examples of such evidence-based reasoning come from two recent analyses. The first Analysis has been welcomed by some conservatives (who doubt that sexism is rife in academic hiring).  The second has been welcomed by liberals (who see economic inequality as psychologically and socially toxic).

(1) Using both actuarial and experimental studies, Cornell psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams looked for possible sexism in academic hiring, but found that “in tenure-track hiring, faculty prefer female job candidates over identically qualified male [candidates].”

Their Chronicle of Higher Education defense of their work reminded me of a long-ago experience. Hoping to demonstrate sexism in action, I attempted a class replication of Philip Goldberg’s famous finding that people give higher ratings to an article attributed to a male (John McKay) than to a female (Joan McKay). Finding no such difference, my student, Janet Swim (now a Penn State social psychologist) and I searched for other attempts to replicate the finding. Our published meta-analysis, with Eugene Borgida and Geoffrey Maruyama, confirmed Ceci/ Williams’ negligible finding.

Neither Ceci/ Williams today, nor us yesterday, question other manifestations of cultural sexism. Rather, in both cases, “Our guiding principle,” to use Ceci/ Williams’ words, “has been to follow the data wherever it takes us.”

(2) Following the data also has led social psychologists to see the costs of extreme inequality. As I noted in an earlier TalkPsych essay, “psychologists have found that places with great inequality tend to be less happy places...with greater health and social problems, and higher rates of mental illness.”

In soon-to-be-published research, Shigehiro Oishi and Selin Kesebir observe that inequality also explains why economic growth often does not improve human happiness. My most oft-reprinted figure, below, shows that Americans today are no happier than they were in 1957 despite having triple the average income. But average income is not real income for most Americans. If the top 1 percent experience massive income increases, that could raise the average but not the actual income for most.345038_money$.png


Indeed, real (inflation-adjusted) median U.S. wages have in fact been flat for some years now. With the rising economic tide lifting the yachts but not the rowboats, might we be paying a psychological price for today’s greater inequality? By comparing economic growth in 34 countries, Oishi and Kesebir show that economic growth does improve human morale when it is widely distributed, but not when “accompanied by growing income inequality...Uneven growth is unhappy growth.”

Ergo, it’s neither conservative nor liberal to follow the data, and—as text authors and essayists—to give the data a voice.

About the Author
David Myers received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.