Expert Finds Bias — Among Bias Researchers

Each year, psychologists gather to discuss research on racial intolerance, sexism, and other forms of bias. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt researches bias, and discovered an unexpected form of prejudice among his own colleagues: political bias.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The buzz from the most recent annual conference on the Society of Personality and Social Psychology was a paper about bias among social psychologists.

Jonathan Haidt began with an informal audience poll of the 1,000 social scientists in attendance. He asked, how many considered themselves politically liberal? About 80 percent raised their hands. He then asked for centrists or libertarians; fewer than a dozen hands went up. When he asked for self-identified conservatives, only three hands went up. That, he told his audience, is a statistically impossible lack of diversity. In other words, it's the product of institutional ideological bias.

So let's hear from social psychologists. Is Haidt right? And what difference does it make? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. It's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, with us from a studio on the campus there. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor JONATHAN HAIDT (University of Virginia): Nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And the issue here is not that conservatives are necessarily underrepresented in social science, not that there is an issue of discrimination, but that non-liberals are actually disappearing and conforming to the majority view.

Prof. HAIDT: That's right. That was really the thing that was concerning me, was not that they're underrepresented. A lot of the critics in the bloggers have said, oh, there's lots of reasons why conservatives will be underrepresented in academe. You know, they're low intelligence, things like that, they say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAIDT: But, you know, the thing that was bothering me wasn't that they're underrepresented. It's that they're basically absent. And when you have - we have a whole community of scientists who share a position, then the system breaks down.

CONAN: And the system breaks down. What do you mean by that?

Prof. HAIDT: Well, I can - I guess I can give you about 20 percent of the psychology of reasoning with two words - that is, confirmation bias. It refers to the fact that we humans are extraordinarily good at finding justifications for whatever conclusion we want to reach. We can spot a supporting justification at 200 meters hiding in a tree. But if it's dangling in front of our face and it goes against our position, we can't see it. And so science works not because we scientists are so smart or so fair or so rational. Science works because it's an institution that puts us all together where we're really, really good at knocking down each other's reasons. And when anybody is doing research on a politically sensitive topic and there is nobody on the other side to raise an objection, well, the science suffers.

CONAN: Nobody challenges the thought and therefore a thesis, a theory that may be invalid goes unchallenged.

Prof. HAIDT: Exactly.

CONAN: And I wonder, what was the reaction in the room when you presented this idea?

Prof. HAIDT: Overwhelmingly positive. I'm actually really proud of my field. It's not - this is not a story about, you know, academics gone wild and, you know, partisan activists and things like that. The overwhelming response was, yeah, you know, I kind of thought that all along. I'm glad somebody finally said it. There was very little defensiveness.

In fact, I actually urged that we change our diversity policy and our affirmative action policy to stop specifying the official list of groups and say what we really are after here is people bring diverse perspectives. And the next day they changed that policy on the Web.

CONAN: So it had an immediate effect?

Prof. HAIDT: A small one, and people are talking about it. So we'll see if anything happens.

CONAN: I wonder, were there any objections though?

Prof. HAIDT: None voiced to me. But, of course, you know, I'm social psychologist. I understand that we don't exactly speak our minds in social situations. So I always, you know, ask my students and everybody else, what have you heard behind the scenes? And I have heard from a few people who are upset. But I'm really surprised at how, you know, how little I've been attacked.

CONAN: Conformity, does that suggests that people who might have conservative views after they joined the profession changed them, or does it suggests that people of liberal bent self-select?

Prof. HAIDT: It's self-selection mostly. And the real problem, I think, is that there is almost enough diversity out there in terms of people who are interested in the field, and there are some graduate students. And actually, one of the important points, it's not - this isn't even so much about conservatives. The people who are writing to me now are mostly not even conservative. They're people who say, I'm a centrist or I'm a liberal Christian. They're just people who aren't secular liberals. And they feel excluded. They feel unwelcome. And so they either keep quiet or they back out.

CONAN: And this is a phenomenon that may vary ideology to ideology, depending on the circumstances of the particular field.

Prof. HAIDT: Exactly. I mean, the point of my talk was that we form tribal moral communities. And I wasn't picking on my field in particular. This is just the nature of humankind. We're really, really good at identifying sacred principles and objects and values, and then we circle around them and then we trust each other and we work together.

You know - and that's great if you're the military of the police or, you know, if you're Zappos.com, whatever it is. If you have a job to do, it helps to all share values. But if the job that you are trying to do is to find the truth, then sharing the values is actually counterproductive.

CONAN: It's hard to find a profession - again, you know, that sort of tribal identity is important in almost every profession, but it's hard to find a profession where diversity of views would not be helpful.

Prof. HAIDT: Well, if - I disagree with that. I think if your job is to get people to suppress their self-interest and sacrifice for the group, then diversity is harmful. But if your job is to figure out what's really going on in the outside world, then you absolutely need it. So I would say academics, the, you know, defense intelligence community, the leadership of the military could really use it even if the rank and file might not need it.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonathan Haidt, associate psychologist at the University of Virginia about an article about his research on political bias in the field of social science. The piece ran in the New York Times last week, which got us interested in it.

We'd like to hear from social scientists. 800-949-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org And Roxanne(ph) is on the line with us from Salem in Oregon.

ROXANNE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call. I'm very excited about this subject. I'm a - I actually have a master's degree in counseling, but I'm a stay-at-home mom. And I can see the influence of this bias at the local level, especially in the school system, because I think what happens - the social - the bias in social psychology comes from the top down through policy.

And at the local level, administrators are concerned with keeping their job, and they make it very uncomfortable for people who want to question the policies and also the theories behind the policies.

CONAN: And when you say they make people who don't share their opinions necessarily very uncomfortable, how do they do that?

ROXANNE: You know, it's - this is a social psychologist's question, I think.

It's very subtle, but it has to do with the way human beings communicate nonverbally, I think. And, also, there may be a response - for example, okay, a parent says, well, you know why are you doing such and such? And the answer will be because in research, the research shows da, da, da, da.

But in studying human beings, there is no cause and effect. There's only hypotheses. We can only theorize, but we can never conclude because human beings are not definable.

CONAN: Jonathan Haidt, does this sound familiar?

Prof. HAIDT: Well, I would disagree with the very last thing you said. I think that we can do experiments on human beings that are as conclusive as experiments on rocks and raindrops.

But I agree with everything else you said. And it's just the nature of the game that people attracted to education are likely to be liberal. And the problem isn't that they're mostly liberal, the problem is that a lot of education schools cross that critical threshold of 90 or 95 percent, and once they become a tribal moral community because everybody seems to be liberal, then you get this sort of force field in place and it filters down as you described it.

It comes down from the top. And people feel they better get with the program or get out of the profession. And, you know, it's a shame. It's morally wrong, and it's a waste of talent.

ROXANNE: Yes. I agree. And I think it actually is not what our forefathers had in mind when they drew up the Constitution.

Prof. HAIDT: Exactly. And again, The Federalist Papers, they wrote a lot about the importance of pitting groups against each other. And, you know, if you wipe out one group so you only have another in place, you get a very unfortunate situation.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you who work in tribal moral communities, whether you're a social psychologist or not. How does this mechanism work? 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org

CONAN: What she was talking about, Jonathan Haidt, that subtle body language, is that how it works?

Prof. HAIDT: Well, it works in a lot of different ways. Since I gave my talk and since it was described in The New York Times, I've gotten lots of letters, of emails from grad students and others.

And you can see this - if you go to jonathanhaidt.com, you can get a link to a lot of materials on this. But people describe things like jokes made about George Bush, assuming that they get it, that they're in on it.

They just - you know, one guy described how his professor, anytime there was something bad in the Iraq War, his professor would email him the news article as if to say, see, look, you voted for Bush, so you're responsible for this disaster.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HAIDT: There are a lot of direct and indirect ways, rolling your eyes, grimacing.

CONAN: And did you start out - I wonder how you got interested in this.

Prof. HAIDT: Well, I study morality. I've always been - I was always a liberal Democrat until very recently. Now, I'd say I'm a centrist Democrat. But it's because I study morality - and I'm writing a book now and trying to look at how these moral matrices emerge. We live in the matrix, just like the movie "The Matrix." And while studying, I had to kind step outside it and step into conservative moral matrices. And as I was kind of moving back and forth, I began to see, you know, whoa, this moral psychology stuff is actually interfering with the quality of our science, in some select areas, not in most topics but in certain select areas.

CONAN: And was there a sort of mental warp when your framework changed?

Prof. HAIDT: Yes. Yeah. I remember the day I was about to teach my first course in political psychology. And I was visiting New York and I stopped into the Strand Book Store and I saw a book on a shelf. It said conservatism. So I just pulled it down and said, hey, what's this? I never heard of this. And I started reading the introductory essay by Jerry Muller. And it actually gave a justification of conservatism that was completely utilitarian. It wasn't ideological. He was just saying, well, look, you know, if you organize your society this way you get these outcomes. And that was one of my time warps. It was like, whoa, I never thought of it this way.

CONAN: Were talking with Jonathan Haidt. He mentioned his website. He spells his last name H-A-I-D-T. So jonathanhaidt.com is what you said?

Prof. HAIDT: Yes.

CONAN: Okay. You can go get a better look at his formation there. We'll also put that link up on our website at npr.org, if you just click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we'll put a link up to The New York Times' article that piqued our interest as well. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Darren(ph). Darren with from Valley Springs in California.

DARREN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Darren. You're on the air.

DARREN: Oh, thanks. I just wanted to respond to the topic of the day. I am a social science major with an education administration degree as well. I was released from my teaching job as a history teacher, because I'm a very staunch constitutionalist. I wouldn't say I'm a liberal or a conservative, just someone who believes in fairness and equity based on the Constitution. I was told that - my principal told me that he had philosophical differences with me.

CONAN: Philosophical differences. Did he spell those out?

DARREN: I asked for more clarification and told him that I would teach according to what he thought should be taught if I wasn't doing something he wanted. But he said that he - it was something that I couldn't change. It was just the person that I was.

CONAN: And is this something that - I don't know how the - was there an appeal available to you?

DARREN: I made an appeal and no one listened to it.

CONAN: And is this in a public school or a private school?

DARREN: Public.

CONAN: Public school. That's interesting. All right. Well, Darren, I'm sorry to hear about that.

DARREN: So am I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HAIDT: If I can comment on that.

CONAN: Sure.

Prof. HAIDT: I think, you know, what happened to Darren illustrates kind of the craziness of our moral psychology where we're all sort of natural Manicheans. We divide the world into good and evil, and we jump on to teams one way or the other. And at - in the United States at present, in the last decade or two, the liberal team versus the conservative team, well, the conservatives have claimed the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. So if somebody who's not even a conservative - but if somebody starts saying, well, you know, I have a problem with the Constitution and I'm, you know, reading the Founding Fathers is kind of crazy, but they then become suspect as being a member of the other team.

CONAN: Let's go next to Tom(ph), Tom with us from St. Louis.

TOM (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi.

TOM: I just found an interesting - I don't know - dichotomy in all of this. I have an anthropology degree and I was in an anthropology program, where I definitely felt - I love the term. And I don't quite have it right, but the tribal...

Prof. HAIDT: Tribal moral community.

TOM: Yeah, tribal moral community. I felt that. And I felt even uncomfortable within it, then changed my direction after my bachelor's degree and now working in business conservative environment. I'm actually facing the other, which is - I even had a close relative I was very, very close to who finally, through a number of discussions and debates, kind of labeled me as too liberal and too far out of bounds for her to even associate with anymore, and I get that quite a bit.

And so I think it's kind of twofold. You get that tribal community, but you also have this intolerance for liberal thinking in the conservative community. I'm just curious how you guys feel about, you know, what is the bridge? How do you bridge those people...

CONAN: Right.

TOM: ...back into that tribal community, and how do you reach out to people who see you as - I mean, I have a family member who's rejected me completely because I have been liberally educated and now I'm secular and I'm forbidden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: So how do you bridge that?

CONAN: Yeah.

TOM: When the opposition is so opposed, they think we're crazy.

Prof. HAIDT: Now, that's a great question, Tom. One thing that I've discovered from my years in psychology is that you get just about nowhere by simply appealing to people, by saying please be different or please change or pointing out a problem.

TOM: Right.

Prof. HAIDT: The way you change things, you got to change - you got to make some small change to systems that end up having some big effects. And so, once you understand the ways the tribal moral community is formed, you can see some ways to bust them up.

And one of those is, you know, affirmative action. I mean, we talk in academia. We're always talking about the benefits of diversity and all the different diverse perspectives it brings.

So, you know, I think in any academic field, they should be doing a census. And if they have below, say, 5 percent of people who are willing to call themselves conservative or liberal, I mean, it's the same on both sides although there aren't any academic fields that are mostly conservative. But any field where they're below, say, 5 percent, they got to take a serious look, and they got to think of some changes that could bust up the force field.

CONAN: Tom.

Prof. HAIDT: The answer, I think, is a little further out than - much further out, actually, than social psychology. So I'm not holding out much hope for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: Yeah. The institutional changes, that long, slow, watching-the-paint-dry stuff, but I think you're right.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tom. Good luck.

TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Andrew(ph) in San Antonio: I found a similar lack of diversity of views in archaeology. The overwhelming liberal composition at a recent field school convinced me to give up my field, give up my study and apply to the law school where the divisions might be more bitter but diversity is greater.

So, well, I guess there are fields where competition is inherent, and I guess the law is one of them.

Prof. HAIDT: That's right. Law, economics, business, those are places -I know economics is actually mostly liberal according to a survey that I read recently. But if it's 2-to-1 liberal or 3-to-1 liberal, that's fine. And so, you know, in law, business - those fields, you have enough diversity. There's also a lot of libertarians in those fields. And libertarians are the least tribal people out there. So I think those fields are, in a way healthier, or quite directly healthier.

CONAN: Jonathan Haidt, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. HAIDT: Oh, my pleasure Neal.

CONAN: Jonathan Haidt is social psychologist, a professor at the University of Virginia's Department of Psychology, with us from a studio there in Charlottesville. Haidt started a website for research on moral and political psychology, www.yourmorals.org. And you can find a link to The New York Times article about his research on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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