Study Finds Conservative Professors Are Justified in Fears of Discrimination

Ashley Thorne

Last year at a national meeting of social psychologists, speaker Jonathan Haidt asked for a show of hands as to whether his audience members considered themselves liberal, moderate, or conservative. Out of about 1,000 people, only three identified as conservative, and most identified as liberal. Haidt’s question led to a larger discussion over whether members of the social psychology field are a “tribal-moral” community, meaning that they tend to exclude people who are different. Peter Wood wrote about this at the time in “De-Tribalizing Academe.” 

Intrigued by this question, two social psychologists from Tilburg University in the Netherlands decided to test it. Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers surveyed by email members of the same group at the 2011 meeting, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). Their paper is forthcoming in the September issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, and a draft version of their paper is available online. 

The authors found that 37.5 percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very likely to “vote for liberal over conservative job candidate if they were equally qualified.” 

In their abstract, Inbar and Lammers wrote that conservative professors are justified in feeling a need to protect themselves by hiding their views from their colleagues: 

Third, we find that conservatives fear negative consequences of revealing their political beliefs to their colleagues. Finally, we find that conservatives are right to do so. In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists admit that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents are, the more willing they are to discriminate.

According to the Washington Times, the authors were surprised by these results: 

The survey questions “were so blatant that I thought we’d get a much lower rate of agreement,” Mr. Inbar said. “Usually you have to be pretty tricky to get people to say they’d discriminate against minorities.” 

Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed interviewed Professor Inbar, who said that both he and his co-author consider themselves liberal: 

Inbar said he describes himself as "a pretty doctrinaire liberal," who volunteered for the Obama campaign in 2008 and who votes Democrat. His co-author, Joris Lammers of Tilburg, is to Inbar's left, he said. 

Inbar and Lammers concluded in their draft report: 

We believe (and we think most of our colleagues, conservative and liberal, would agree) that we should have an environment where hypotheses may be raised regardless of their political implications. An environment that stimulates open discussion can only benefit our field. By excluding those who disagree with (most of) us politically, we treat them unfairly, do ourselves a disservice and ultimately damage the scientific credibility of our field. 

The survey measures hypothetical situations—what respondents think they might do, and not what they have actually done. And it does not include questions about discrimination against liberals. But it does give evidence that a substantial number of scholars admit a willingness to act on their biases. 

It’s yet to be seen whether Inbar and Lammers’ paper will inspire a mindset change in the social psychology field (and others), or be waved away like similar research.

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