THE BLOG
02/25/2014 09:02 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Polarized Psychology: Is Science Devalued in a Divided Society?

How do we share our research in a politically polarized America when only half the country may be receptive to our findings? That was a key question from the 2014 Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference.

SPSP offered several ways in which we can increase our cultural presence, including synchronous "massive open online classrooms" (MOOCs), mobile apps (e.g., Quantified Self Movement), increasing interdisciplinary interactions, open-access publishing, publishing in journals that reach a larger audience, and developing a larger Web presence to facilitate greater outreach to the American media.

In a brief soliloquy during his address, Dr. Jaime Pennebaker, the president of SPSP, argued that social psychologists "need to have a bigger cultural presence." He continued:

I've always been interested when I go to Europe ... where social psychologists have a really big role in the culture. ... We need more of that. I get really bothered when I see horrible stuff on television -- you see a giant social psychological phenomenon occur, and no one bothers to call a social psychologist to come in. ... We're not reaching out enough to the culture.

The issue, though, is that these efforts may only reach one side of the partisan divide in the United States.

Ideological Diversity

Social science and policy research is increasingly being treated as "liberal" science by a large segment of society and is summarily dismissed. At one of the SPSP symposia, Dr. Yoel Inbar argued that one of the issues is a lack of political diversity in the social sciences. For instance, 90.6 percent of social and personality psychologists describe themselves as liberal on social issues (compared with 3.9 percent who describe themselves as conservative), and 63.2 percent describe themselves as liberal on economic issues (compared with 10.3 percent who describe themselves as conservative). Overall, they found a liberal-to-conservative ratio of 14:1.

Dr. Jaime Pennebaker argued that this may be "interfering with our ability to be part of the dialogue on public discourse, part of the dialogue on global problems." He suggested that we change how we frame/discuss things to make them more accessible and understandable. "Say 'climate change' instead of 'global warming,'" he offered.

Dr. Lee Jussim, in a terse summary of research findings draped in subtle humor, encapsulated the stereotypes of conservatives that pervade settings where social scientists work:

Conservatives are rigid, hypocritical, fearful racists. They're lower on intelligence, they rationalize inequality and oppression, and that explains why they're happier than liberals. Now if that's the narrative, I think you could probably see how this may turn away non-liberals.

This "narrative" is partially corroborated by Inbar and Lammer's (2012) finding that conservatives perceive a more hostile climate in the scientific workplace than do moderates or liberals. Seventy-two percent of self-identified conservatives said they feared that their colleagues would discriminate against them, and 78 percent said they would be reluctant to talk about their political beliefs in the workplace. In addition, many liberals reported that they would be willing to discriminate against conservatives in paper reviews (one in six), grant reviews (one in four), symposium invitations (one in six), and hiring decisions (one in three).

False Moral Equivalence

Based on these results, the right wing may be less receptive to social research because they perceive that the field is hostile to their beliefs and that they may be ostracized by it. If we adhere to our basic, unpunctuated logic, then our only option is to be more accommodating of right-wing beliefs if we wish to have greater diversity in social research.

But of course, being the erudite social scientist, policy researcher, and/or activist that you are, you know that such an ensemble of contradictory beliefs is untenable.

It wouldn't serve science to invite a homophobe as a collaborator on an LGBT relationship study, it wouldn't be efficient to hire someone who sees the Civil War as the "War of Northern Aggression" as a tenure-track lecturer in an African Studies department, and it would be a waste of everyone's time to write a report on climate change with a climate-change denier. It is also unlikely that a policy researcher investigating the benefits of contraception in reducing the abortion rate would co-author a report with someone who believes contraception only rewards women who can't control their libidos, or that a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arizona would want to work for an institution that denies services to gay and lesbian couples.

In short, the lack of ideological diversity hasn't materialized in a vacuum where unhinged liberals oppress morally qualified conservatives. My belief in God has not tethered me to the intellectually languorous beliefs that evolution and climate change are "lies straight from the pit of Hell." In one's personal circle, those ideas can be recognized as valid moral beliefs. In the scientific sphere, denying climate change simply can't be assumed to be morally equivalent to accepting it. This is especially true as more institutions cultivate interdisciplinary projects (such as UT-Arlington's #UTAdna). If a racially diverse group of collaborators is investigating the experiences of interracial lesbian or gay spouses in Texas and California, it would be scientific malfeasance if someone opposed to miscegenation and/or same-sex marriage were among the researchers.

Libertarians Aren't Social Conservatives

I asked Dr. Yoel Inbar a question on the issue of marriage equality in particular. "In the 1960s, if I was working in a Psych department, I'd probably not want to work with someone who was against interracial marriage," I said. "So why would I want to work with someone who is against same-sex marriage today?"

Dr. Inbar replied:

An objection to same-sex marriage today is going to seem, in 40 years, like an objection to interracial marriage in the 1960s. And we would now not accept someone who objected to interracial marriage. We wouldn't want to be around that person. We certainly wouldn't want them as a colleague. ... I'm extremely pro-gay-rights, and I find people who are against gay rights to be morally uncomfortable. I don't think that there are many religious fundamentalists ... who want to be social psychologists. I think what we're talking about are people who identify as libertarian. ... Those are the people who may be interested and who feel kind of pushed out.

Distinguishing between libertarians and conservatives is key in our efforts to increase ideological diversity, and this point was echoed by Dr. Jonathan Haidt during one of the symposia:

If you count libertarians as conservatives ... that's going to really dilute your conservatives. What we're talking about are social conservatives. To say that you're an economic conservative isn't really important psychologically. The psychological variable here ... is really about social conservatives. It's really important that libertarians be left out [of the 'conservative' classification].

This is where I feel the social scientific community should focus its efforts in our pursuit of ideological diversity. Having all-liberal collaborations on research where libertarians could certainly contribute may cause us to overlook important interpretations, just as having an all-male panel on contraception may cause them to overlook... everything. It is important that we increase libertarian participation in our varied scientific fields, particularly to the extent that it enables us to reach a larger American audience.

Lastly, it may also be worthwhile to reach out to social conservatives who are focused on topics unrelated to civil rights or social policy. For example, a homophobic social conservative doing research on short-term memory, the effects of nicotine on rats, or how personality affects compliance with a dentist's recommendation to floss would be fine. However, if this same person had been researching the effects of segregation in the 1940s, the Brown v. Board of Education decision might have gone the other way. Essentially, our pursuit of ideological diversity should not result in the pollution of our community's understanding of basic facts (e.g., those on climate change and evolution), uncomfortably encroach upon our collective morals or otherwise malign the American Psychological Association's stance on civil rights and gay rights: "Therefore be it resolved that the American Psychological Association (APA) supports full marriage equality for same-sex couples."