Are social psychologists biased against conservatives, or do they just think they are?

A new paper coming out next month by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers proposes that some social psychologists discriminate against conservatives in hiring and other professional decisions. Inside Higher Ed has the scoop:

Numerous surveys have found that professors, especially those in some disciplines, are to the left of the general public. But those same — and other — surveys have rarely found evidence that left-leaning academics discriminate on the basis of politics…

A new study, however, challenges that assumption — at least in the field of social psychology… Just over 37 percent of [social psychologists] surveyed said that, given equally qualified candidates for a job, they would support the hiring of a liberal candidate over a conservative candidate. Smaller percentages agreed that a “conservative perspective” would negatively influence their odds of supporting a paper for inclusion in a journal or a proposal for a grant.

Here’s an interesting thing though… social psychology as a field of research is heavily involved in studying implicit biases. And there is a long tradition in social psych of studies showing that people do not have access to the psychological processes that produce these biases and cannot even recognize that they have biases.

Here’s an example of the kind of questions used for evidence of bias:

For the next set of questions, we are interested in what you think YOU WOULD DO in specific situations.

1. If you were reviewing a research grant application that seemed to you to take a politically conservative perspective, do you think this would negatively influence your decision on the grant application?

[Other questions dealt with reviewing papers, hiring, etc. Respondents were given a 7-point scale, and the authors categorized any response at or above the midpoint — labeled “somewhat” — as indicating a willingness to discriminate.]

How is a good social psychologist supposed to answer this question? If you believe in the IAT, Wilson & Nisbett, etc. and you are committed to trying to give the most accurate answer that you can, then I think one very defensible conclusion to derive from those theories is that yes, you are at least somewhat likely to discriminate. And because your training would tell you to be skeptical of your intuitions and introspections, you could reach that conclusion even if you fervently believe you would never intentionally discriminate, and even if your past behavior has always appeared (to you) to be completely fair.

Is that what some of the respondents were doing — giving expert predictions rather than personal responses? I have no idea. But I find it hard to rule out. And I think it’s enough of a possibility to raise serious concerns about labeling responses to that question as “willingness to discriminate.” Many social psychologists who study implicit bias believe that a lot of discriminatory behavior happens apart from, or even in opposition to, what people are “willing” (intending) to do. And the survey question doesn’t ask about willingness, it asks about probable behavior (“what you think YOU WOULD DO,” caps in the original). To a layperson, that distinction might seem like hairsplitting. To a social psychologist, the difference is huge.

None of this is to knock the survey itself. I think Inbar and Lammers have given us a useful window into what social psychologists believe about political bias in their field (and as an aside, there’s lots of other interesting stuff in that paper besides the discrimination questions). But I’m not convinced that one can make a straightforward leap to inferring discriminatory behavior from this survey. Like a lot of research, the study raises more questions than it answers, and begs for followup studies with behavioral outcomes. My personal hunch is that it’s plausible that social psychologists’ political beliefs do influence their professional decisions. But if I put my scientist glasses on and evaluate this survey as a piece of empirical research, I’m just not sure that it really pins down a clear answer yet.

—–

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (in press). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Working paper available here.