Study Shows Bias Against Conservatives in Academia

“Physician, heal thyself,” never seemed more apt as when, during the course of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference on bias, Jonathan Haidt accused society members of bias against conservatives.

During his presentation, the University of Virginia psychologist — whose research focus is morality and ideology — asked the audience to identify by a show of hands their ideological leanings. Only three raised their hands when Haidt looked to count the conservatives among those attending the lecture. Haidt called it “a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” especially in light of the fact that 40% of Americans self-identify as conservative while only 20% call themselves liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.

One such explanation, offered by Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert to Reason Magazine, hit all the usual stereotypes associated with political leanings by saying that liberals are more likely to enter academia because they embrace new ideas, are willing to work for low pay or are just more intelligent. All these factors might make academia more appealing to liberals while at the same time making it less appealing to conservatives.

An interesting theory, no doubt — yet it serves as an example of guessing zebras when hearing hooves when horses are much more likely. A recent study by two Dutch psychologists, Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, finds a much more logical explanation: that conservatives are, at least to some degree, victims of discrimination in academia when it comes to hiring and publishing. Among those interviewed about their views for the study, the more rigid in their liberal views the interviewees were, the more likely were they to discriminate against their openly conservative colleagues.

The authors of this study surveyed a large number (combined N = 800) of social and personality psychologists and discovered several interesting facts. First, although only 6% described themselves as conservative “overall,” there was more diversity of political opinion on economic issues and foreign policy. Second, respondents significantly underestimated the proportion of conservatives among their colleagues. Third, conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, they are right to do so: In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.

This could explain why Haidt got so few takers when he asked conservatives to identify themselves. In addition to there being fewer conservatives in the audience, of those who were, some probably feared backlash from colleagues and negative professional consequences that might come from admitting their political leanings by raising their hand.