C.R. writes: Last fall the Netherlands’ Tilburg University made headlines (and a Therapy Soup blog post) when it was found that one of their highly-esteemed researchers was essentially a con artist.
Diederik Stapel, PhD, world-renowned social psychologist and researcher (much admired here in the U.S.), admitted to massive research fraud. At last count, dozens of Stapel’s studies were shown to be falsified and over 100 of his papers are still being investigated.
Social psychologists and others are even today heatedly discussing the problem, and they are also examining the field of social psychology itself. So much of what we’ve come to believe about the psychology of individuals as they interact with society is based on his findings!
The place where this all went down, Tilburg University of the Netherlands, is in the news again.
First news tidbit: Tilburg announced that later this fall, a woman who is an inspiration to millions of people in Africa and around the world, President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf of Liberia, will be receiving an Honorary Doctorate degree from the Dutch University. She will deliver an address on the theme of “International Social Responsibility.” An Honorary Doctorate could hardly be awarded to a more deserving, heroic figure.
The second, and far more controversial news from Tilburg: two Tilburg social psychology researchers, Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, published an article in the Association of Psychological Science Journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, which states that social psychologists of one political persuasion discriminate against their politically-different peers.
That discrimination exists against those with differing politics (in this instance, liberal bias against conservatives) in any field is not all that surprising. That it should exist in personality and social psychology, which focuses on what makes individuals unique thinkers and studies societal issues including political affiliation, is more than disappointing.
Last year, social psychologist Jon Haidt made headlines speaking at a major social psychology meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). While on stage he asked conservatives in the audience to raise their hands. Out of 1000 attendees, only 3 were conservatives (or were willing to admit they were). The topic of different political outlooks (in the academy, especially in the social sciences, and how this reflects and influences society) is so in vogue that Bill Moyers did a show with Haidt just this past February.
Reportedly, Tilburg’s Joris Lammers was inspired by Haidt’s experience and it was this that prompted him to create this new political diversity survey of 800 of the nearly 2000 members of the SPSP.
Lammers and Inbar found that most personality and social psychologists underestimate the number of conservatives in the field. It’s actually only six percent, which is nowhere near representative of the population as a whole, but all social psychologists guessed there were even less. Inbar and Lammers also found that conservatives in the personality and social psychology field are afraid to reveal their beliefs fearing they’ll be ostracized. The authors conclude that they are right to do so.
One quarter of the survey respondents admitted they would actively discriminate against conservative social-psychology researchers. Nearly a fifth agreed they’d recommend not publishing conservative research and over a third said they wouldn’t hire a conservative (if a liberal candidate was available). Also, the more liberal the social psychologist, the more they were willing to admit openly that they’d discriminate.
The survey is actually more fine-tuned than one might expect. Inbar and Lammers allowed for beliefs across a spectrum (from very to moderate to not at all) in a variety of issue-areas. Not every liberal was liberal and not every conservative was conservative in every issue area (foreign policy, social issues, economic issues) just as in “real life” people vary on where they fall depending on the issue.
Also, if this survey is valid, it calls into question new (and perhaps older) research being done by personality and social psychologists on the nature of liberals and conservatives, certainly a hot topic. Bias and active discrimination in the field against anyone should simply not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, we promised you there’d be plenty of Liberal/Conservative focus in the media right before the upcoming Presidential election and we want to do our part. We’ll keep looking for more psychology-related news on political issues.
A note: As someone who views herself as an independent thinker (informed by my deeply held spiritual beliefs) on a wide range of issues, I believe diversity of ideas, beliefs, and opinions is essential in the social-sciences. Especially in personality and social psychology.
The field reflects, analyzes, and, most important, influences society as a whole. Western society, especially the U.S., is made up of all kinds of unique people with all kinds of belief systems. It’s amazing when you think about it, that we can’t assume we know what someone’s beliefs are based upon their skin color, gender, or other visible characteristics. Unlike in some other lands, here we are free to think for ourselves, without fear.
Though it is undeniable that certain fields tend to be self-selecting (some fields attract specific types of thinkers) no one in any field, especially in our nation which is proud of its multi-culturalism and diversity and tolerance, should be afraid to say he or she is liberal, conservative, moderate, an issue-by-issue thinker, independent, informed by spirituality or religion, and so on.
Reasonable people agree that there should be freedom of political and religious belief and expression in any profession, and especially in the academy. Debate which contributes to the evolution of thought are the hallmark of intellectual honesty and development. And interestingly enough, research shows even partisan thinkers on each end of the spectrum seek information and explore media that conflicts with their viewpoint. Why not in this field?
Also, I’m am a regular reader (and have blogged about) Dacher Keltner’s Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. They are a policy-oriented social psychology research center. It would be great if they’d evaluate Lammer and Inbar’s survey, and if they find the results are genuinely accurate and not based on flawed research, they should explore the topic and address the problem and offer solutions to increase diversity in the field.
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Last reviewed: 21 Aug 2012