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Why Are Social Psychologists Mostly Liberals

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Originally posted on September 16, 2015.

Social psychology’s progressivism has been no secret. Our values inform our interests in topics such as prejudice, sexism, violence, altruism, and inequality.

Still, I was a bit stunned, while attending the January, 2011, Society of Personality and Social Psychology convention, when our colleague Jonathan Haidt—as part of his plea for more ideological diversity—asked for a show of hands. How many of us considered ourselves “liberals”? A sea of hands arose—80 to 90 percent of the thousand or so attendees, Haidt estimated (here). And how many considered themselves “centrists” or “moderates”? About 20 hands rose. “Libertarians?” A dozen. “Conservatives?” Across that ballroom, three hands were visible.

As one of the respondents, I remember thinking: If the media are here, we’re going to read about this. And, indeed: see here and here.

And now comes another survey that makes the same point. For an upcoming chapter for a volume on politics in psychology, social psychologist Bill von Hippel surveyed fellow members of the invitation-only Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Among his findings (reported in an e-mail to participants): “When asked your preference in the last presidential election, Obama beat Romney 305 to 4.”

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 (which includes research that documents the social toxicity of pornography and the benefits of covenant relationships that satisfy the human need to belong).

Still, by a huge margin, social psychologists are liberal (much as certain other professions, such as medicine, the military, and law enforcement tend to be populated by conservatives).

Why social psychology’s liberalism? Does our discipline’s focus on the power of social situations make liberalize us? Are psychology departments less open to admitting and hiring conservatives? Or do liberals self-select into academia, including the behavioral sciences? Such are among the answers proposed.

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. 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 www.hearingloop.org).