By Russell K. Nieli
Social psychology has long been a haven for left-wing scholars. Jonathan Haidt, one of the best known and most respected young social psychologists, has heaved two bombshells at his field--one indicting it for effectively excluding conservatives (he is a liberal) and the other for what he sees as a jaundiced and cult-like opposition to religion (he is an atheist).
Here he is on the treatment of conservatives:
I submit to you that the under-representation of conservatives in social psychology, by a factor of several hundred, is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering. ... We should take our own rhetoric about the benefits of diversity seriously and apply it to ourselves. ... Just imagine if we had a true diversity of perspectives in social psychology. Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts. That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.
And here he is on religion:
Surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. …Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior -- giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need -- religious people appear to be morally superior.
Bombshell Number One fell four years ago in an unusually influential article. ("Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion") Haidt argued that the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, together with the secular psychology profession more generally, have failed to grasp the positive role that belief and religious ritual plays in the social life of religious people. In their focus on religion's capacity to generate intolerance and other social harms, the psychology profession and the more outspoken religion critics of recent years, Haidt wrote, missed the all-important binding and community-forming role that traditional religious belief and religious practice frequently perform.
Haidt's earliest professional interest was in the psychology of moral systems and moral beliefs, and his interest in religion sprung from this early academic concern. While he initially tended to view religion in a negative light, his reading of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim gave him greater appreciation for the community-forming and morality-reinforcing importance of shared religious beliefs. "If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics," Haidt said, "you've got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together." Religion, Haidt said, has been misunderstood by many Western academics because they focus too often on its (often dubious) truth claims or on its (often negative) contributions to modern secular notions of fairness and justice. But religion is a much more multi-faceted phenomenon than Western secularists attribute to it, Haidt wrote, and from the standpoint of moral psychology it must be acknowledged as one of the greatest forces there is in suppressing human selfishness and furthering cooperation and cohesion among its practitioners (though this cooperation and cohesion, Haidt readily admitted, is often purchased at the expense of hostility towards outsiders or internal dissidents).
Haidt backed up his claim about the social benefits of religion by summarizing some of the empirical evidence on the topic, drawing heavily from economist Arthur Brooks' important study, Who Really Cares:
If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right. … [Not only are religious people more charitable among themselves], religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood.
Haidt concluded his article on a Burkean note suggesting that such longstanding practices and ways of life as found in the world's religions are likely to contain at least "some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing." Haidt's bottom line was that much of contemporary moral and social psychology had misunderstood religion, reduced it to only one of its dimensions, and failed to acknowledge its unquestionably positive role in furthering at least certain types of moral conduct.
His Critics Respond
Haidt's article was republished on the website www.edge.org where several distinguished academic psychologists and intellectuals were asked to comment. Some respondents agreed with the claim that secular investigators of religion often miss its positive dimensions, but other respondents, including most vehemently Sam Harris, repeated their ongoing indictment of religion as an unmitigated disaster for humanity. In response to these latter critics Haidt offered an account of his own change of heart on the subject. "I want to make it clear that I am not an apologist for religion," he said. "I used to dislike all religions, back when I thought of them as systems of belief that helped individuals understand the world and cope with the unknown. After reading Durkheim and D.S. Wilson I now think of religions first and foremost as coordination devices that bind people together into moral communities with effects that are mostly good for the members, although sometimes terrible for deviants and for neighboring groups. Whether the net effects of religion for humanity are good or bad is a complex empirical question, the answer to which varies by religion, by era, and by what terms we include in our cost/benefit analysis. I am motivated neither to convict nor to acquit [religion], but if religion is to be subject to trial by science, I want the trial to be fair. Until we [social scientists] acknowledge a latent prejudice, however, we will have trouble understanding the accused."
Haidt compared religion and its social-binding role to that of college fraternities and college sports teams, and he related how his views on the social utility of these collegiate institutions had undergone the very same kind of change and development as his views on religion. "I used to wish," he explained, "that all fraternities and major sports teams would disappear from my university -- I thought of them as tribal institutions that brought out the ugly and sometimes violent side of young people. But after talking with athletes, fraternity members, and fundraisers I realized that these institutions create powerful feelings of belonging which have enormous benefits for the participants while making them fiercely loyal and extraordinarily generous later on to the University of Virginia. Fraternities and sports teams contribute greatly to the strong school spirit at UVA, and to our rapidly growing endowment." Haidt went on to explain that all students, not just the athletes and fraternity members, benefit from the externalities created by these communal ties.
The Second Bombshell
Needless to say, Haidt was hardly playing it safe among his fellow academics by coming up with good reasons to support religion, varsity sports, and college fraternities in America. But his defense of currently out-of-favor groups and beliefs hardly prepared his social psychology colleagues for his second iconoclastic bombshell delivered this past January. At the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology -- the leading professional organization in the discipline -- Haidt accused his fellow social psychologists of being "a tribal moral community" that acted in many ways like a narrow-minded religious cult bound together by a set of highly partisan political beliefs and "blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values." To an academic audience that prides itself on its open-mindedness, its tolerance of diversity, and its single-minded pursuit of truth, these were "fighting words" and Haidt made sure he backed up his assertion with strong evidence from a variety of domains.
Just look at the Larry Summers firing at Harvard, Haidt began. The wider distribution curve for IQs among men than women may be one reason, Summers suggested, why women are underrepresented in the math and science intensive fields at the most competitive institutions like Harvard, since greater variance means larger numbers of males at both the low and high end of the ability distribution. Such a hypothesis is certainly worth exploring, Haidt said, yet for those within the tribal force field of left-liberal academia such "is not a permissible hypothesis." "It is a sacrilege. It blames the victim rather than the powerful." The ensuing outrage over Summers' hypothesis, Haidt explained, forced the Harvard president to resign. "[Yet] we psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage," Haidt complained. "We should have defended his right to think freely." The social psychologists, however, like most other academics, did nothing, kept quiet about the matter, and passively watched as Summers was forced to resign for his heretical suggestion.
Haidt then explained to his colleagues his strenuous efforts to find social psychologists who dissented from the prevailing left/liberal political perspective dominant in the field with publicly acknowledged political leanings of a conservative or right-of-center character. But it proved a most difficult task. A Google search under the phrase "liberal social psychologist" turned up 2740 hits, Haidt announced to his audience, while "conservative social psychologist" turned up a total of three hits. And none of the three conservative hits turned out to produce the names of a single, real-life, conservative social psychologist.
But Haidt persisted. After emailing 30 colleagues and friends in the social psychology field, and querying them if they knew of any conservatives in the field, one genuine conservative was found. That was Rick McCauley of Bryn Mawr College, a specialist on the psychology of terrorism. Haidt had actually met McCauley years earlier during his student days at the University of Pennsylvania where McCauley was a friend of one of Haidt's academic advisors: "When I first met Rick [as a student at Penn] I was wary of him," Haidt explained. "I had heard that he was a conservative. … I had never before met an actual conservative professor, and it took me a while to realize how valuable it was to hear from someone with a different perspective." Haidt went on to explain that many of McCauley's later insights in the social psychology field were only made possible because "he stands outside of the liberal force field" of the contemporary psychology profession. Without his dissenting political perspective, Haidt suggested, McCauley might not have come up with his particularly valuable angle on political terrorism.
With a huge audience of social psychologists representing a reasonably good cross section of those in the field, Haidt had an ideal situation at the annual meeting to do some informal polling to confirm his claim of an ideological monopoly of the left. He asked the assembled multitude which of four categories best described their political leanings: 1) liberal or left-of-center, 2) centrist or moderate, 3) libertarian, or 4) conservative or right- of-center. By a show of hands, between 80 and 90 percent of the audience indicated they were "liberal or left- of-center," while in this enormous audience that Haidt estimated numbered about 1000, there were only 20 with "centrist or moderate" political views, 12 with "libertarian" views, and only three described their views as "conservative or right-of-center." Conservatives thus made up less than 1 percent of the social psychologists assembled, in a country, Haidt reminded his audience, in which 40 percent of the public describe their political views in this manner.
This virtual absence of right-of-center voices, Haidt boldly proclaimed, "is evidence that we are a tribal moral community that actively discourages conservatives from entering." He backed up this claim with two letters he had solicited from non-liberal graduate students who spoke of their reluctance to express their political views because they were middle-of-the-road in their politics and not liberal. "I consider myself very middle of the road politically," one wrote. "[I am] a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work." Both of these graduate students, Haidt explained, "said they are not conservative, but neither are they liberal, and because they are not liberal, they feel pressure to keep quiet." To back up his claim that social psychologists, knowingly or unknowingly, create a hostile and unwelcoming work environment for students or faculty with non-conforming political views Haidt cited the words of a previous speaker at the convention: "I'm a good liberal Democrat, just like every other social psychologist I know."
Haidt's indictment of the social psychology profession was devastating. While cult-like or conformist tribal behavior may have its benefits for a religious group -- Haidt, had made just this point in his earlier writings -- it has no place in science, he declared. "We social psychologists" said Haidt, think of ourselves as "super-tolerant free thinkers. We celebrate diversity and non-conformity. We boldly follow our science wherever it takes us, and no matter whom it offends. We care only about truth!" In reality, however, Haidt went on to explain, "we are a tribal moral community. … We have sacred values other than truth; we have taboos that constrain our thinking; we have almost no moral/political diversity; and we have created a hostile climate for graduate students who don't share those sacred values."
Haidt concluded his address with a plea that social psychology develop a more welcoming attitude toward those who don't share the left-liberal viewpoint on moral and political issues. Having a few conservatives within the profession would be a healthy development, he said, just as bringing women into the profession at an earlier period was healthy. "We should make it a priority," he said, "to find, nurture, and welcome a few dozen conservatives into our ranks." Such a development, he explained, would bring fresh ideas into the profession and no doubt lead to new areas and topics of exploration. Haidt also suggested that his colleagues try to familiarize themselves with viewpoints that they rarely hear from talking to one another. He specifically recommended in this context that they read Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions and read a conservative magazine like National Review. Haidt explained that he personally reads eight periodicals a month, seven of which have left-of-center viewpoints, "but I get more new ideas from reading National Review than from any of the others."
Haidt's Colleagues Respond
Like his earlier article on the treatment of religion by academic psychologists and the New Atheists, Haidt's address on the leftist bias of the social psychology profession was reproduced on the www.edge.org website where various colleagues were asked to respond. Some of the responses did more than Haidt could ever have done to confirm his claim that a tribal or cult-like insularity and conformity informs many in the social psychology profession. One distinguished psychologist, a Harvard professor, suggested that the near monopoly of people on the left among social psychologists might simply reflect the fact, not that there are barriers to entry for conservatives, but that "liberals may be more interested in new ideas, more willing to work for peanuts, or just more intelligent, all of which may push them to pursue the academic life while deterring their conservative peers." Another professor from NYU suggested that the fact that so many ordinary Americans are conservative but almost all social psychologists are liberal may simply reflect the greater knowledge and expertise of the latter. "We should ask honestly," he wrote, "whether social scientists are too liberal or society is too conservative." "After all," he went on to explain, "when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased."
Not all of the responses to Haidt's address were hostile, however -- or ideologically self-serving. Lee Jussim, for instance, the chairman of Rutgers psychology department, had this to say: "I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to, and enthusiasm for, Jon Haidt's speech. As he so refreshingly pointed out, liberal bias infects, distorts, and undermines the quality of our science. … If [Haidt's speech] leads even one researcher to be more sensitive to the extraordinary double standards and blindness that sometimes taint our field, it will have been a rousing success."
Another supporter of Haidt's speech was Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale. To get across Haidt's central idea of a hostile work environment confronting non-conformists, Bloom asked his fellow psychologists to imagine the following scenario:
Imagine that you are a beginning graduate student accepted into a top-ranked psychology department. The first colloquium talk you go to is about deception, from a famous social psychologist. In the middle of her talk, she makes a remark about how some people are simply incapable of ever telling the truth, and then she puts up a large picture of Barack Obama. People roar with laughter, and there's a bit of applause. You are a teaching fellow in a large Introduction to Psychology course, and the professor talks a bit about popular delusions, giving the example of liberals who believe in global warming. Al Gore is mentioned in a lecture on clinical psychology, in the context of narcissistic personality disorder. Everyone you know is a conservative Republican and assumes that you are one too, making off-hand jokes to you about brain-dead liberals. But suppose you are, in fact, a liberal yourself. How would you feel about this new life you have chosen?
Bloom then went on to state the obvious: "Nobody wants to be part of a community where their identity is the target of ridicule and malice." This, he said, is obvious to social psychologists in dealing with all sorts of other biases involving gender, race, and sexual orientation. It should be obvious, too, he said, for biases against those who hold political views outside the left-liberal mainstream. For a community that proclaims the value of diversity, Bloom said, we should be much more sensitive to these issues of political bias. "Jon is right that we should do better."
A Model of Academic Self-Analysis
It is almost impossible to overstate the courage, intellectual clarity, and simple wisdom involved in Jonathan Haidt's challenges to his social psychology colleagues. His message is as uncompromising as it is uncomplicated: open up the discipline to viewpoints outside the narrow, left-liberal mainstream, learn from people who have political and moral views different than you own, treat religion more fairly, and stop acting like an insular tribal cult and act more like the open-minded science profession you claim to be.
That's a powerful message and one can only wish that it is heard not only by the social psychology profession but by almost all the other current disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. Studies by economist Daniel Klein and others have documented the extreme ideological uniformity and insularity among a host of academic disciplines, psychology being just one. Sociology, anthropology, and women's studies have been found to be even more ideologically skewed than psychology. People outside the left-liberal hegemony that reigns in these disciplines feel intimidated and unwelcomed, and even if a student may feel some attraction to academic life, those with conservative, libertarian, or other dissenting viewpoints will be turned away by an academic culture that they correctly perceive is hostile to their differing values and perspectives. Haidt's exploration of the social psychology profession is a model of constructive academic self-analysis and self-criticism -- and one we can only wish is duplicated by leaders in other disciplines.
Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in the Executive Precept Program in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.