The Social Sciences Strikes Again
The vast majority of social psychologists – easily over 90%, by most estimates – count themselves on the left politically and culturally. So it’s no big surprise that gobs and gobs of social science have been deployed to prove that conservatives and libertarians are a little… well, you know… a little off.
Belief in free markets and entrepreneurship, respect for tradition and objectivity, suspicion of government tinkering and central planning – these have been taken by many social scientists to be evidence that residents of the non-left side of the political spectrum aren’t playing with a full deck. In a word, conservatism – including right-leaning libertarianism – is a pathology. This we know, for social science tells us so.
In a word, conservatism – including right-leaning libertarianism – is a pathology. This we know, for social science tells us so.
How far will our social psychologists go to discredit their political opposites? Here’s how far: One semester a little over 10 years ago, experimental psychologists recruited 76 college students at UC Berkeley to fill out a form placing their own political orientation on a scale from liberal (1) to conservative (5). It’s unclear from the published study how many of the lucky 76 identified themselves as conservative – you might have heard that Berkeley is not known as a hothouse of right-wingery. Nearly half the students were Asian, one-third were Caucasian, and all of them, by definition, were the kind of kids who want to go to Berkeley. Not even the researchers pretended that the students formed a randomly selected, statistically representative sample – of anything.
Still, science never rests. With the questionnaires in hand, a team of grad students was dispatched to the students’ dorm rooms. These weren’t just any grad students. These were grad students who had been trained to codify “environmental attributes” according to the Personal Living Space Cue Inventory. (Those capital letters are impressive, aren’t they?) And code they did – every little detail they found in the living spaces. They gave numerical values to the “presence of string [or] thread” in the dorm rooms. If there was an ironing board, it got coded. Were there any postage stamps in evidence? Coded. International maps? Also coded. A laundry basket? How about the CDs – any folk music in there? Was the furniture modern or old-fashioned? No stinky pair of socks escaped attention. The grad students coded it all.
Back at the psych lab, the computers were fed and the numbers went crunch, crunch. The scientists wrote up their findings and in 2008 published a paper with the piquant title “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives.”
And guess what?
“We found support,” they concluded, “for many of the observations made by social and psychological theorists over the last 75 years or so… concerning the ways in which personality differences covary with political orientation. Liberals did appear to be more open, tolerant, creative, curious, expressive, enthusiastic, and drawn to novelty and diversity, in comparison with conservatives, who appeared to be more conventional, orderly, organized, neat, clean, withdrawn, reserved, and rigid.”
It’s amazing what you think you can learn sorting the dirty laundry of 76 students at Berkeley. You just have to be a social scientist with a thesis to prove.
It’s amazing what you think you can learn sorting the dirty laundry of 76 students at Berkeley. You just have to be a social scientist with a thesis to prove. The study, of course, is glaringly preposterous. Yet as of this writing, it has been cited 824 times in other professional journals and is now taken as a foundational text in the literature on the psychological sources of political ideology.
The researchers themselves thought it had broad explanatory power. They even thought it told us why conservatives tend to go into fields like “finance, in which order and structure are inherently imposed, as opposed to the arts, humanities, and even [hey, whaddaya know] social sciences, in which creativity, openness, and cognitive flexibility are job requirements.”
Not all the social science studies that try to prove non-liberal beliefs to be pathological are so transparently ridiculous. Yet most of them do share the same methodological problem, a common one in the social sciences. They assume what they intend to prove. Social psychologists speak of the RR model (“Rigidity of the Right”) and the NSC model (“Need for Security and Certainty”) as tools to understand why free marketers and other conservatives think the way they do. Together the two models cast conservatives as timid, frightened, cautious, unyielding creatures. This, you’ll notice, nicely suits the common liberal caricature of the right – as somebody once put it, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment.
All by itself, this widely shared lack of self-awareness should make lefty social scientists extra careful when exploring the psychology of people whose political views they don’t share – or understand.
Barack Obama didn’t have to cite any social science when he spoke those words in 2008. His listeners – at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco – already assumed them to be self-evidently true. All by itself, this widely shared lack of self-awareness should make lefty social scientists extra careful when exploring the psychology of people whose political views they don’t share – or understand.
But it doesn’t. Instead the researchers fall into tautology. Note that “personal rigidity” and a “need for security” are psychological traits – “pre-political,” in social science lingo. Yet in most of the studies in this area, the scales measuring the psychological traits are the same as those measuring political views. Rigidity, a need for security, and similar traits are taken to be predictors of conservatism. Conservatism is taken to be evidence of rigidity, a need for security, and similar traits. The reasoning is pristinely circular, a daisy chain of confirmation bias. As one team of (very brave) renegade social scientists concluded, “This [technique] is tautological when one is attempting to address the empirical question of whether, and to what degree, such traits and styles correlate with conservatism.”
This technical flaw has long crippled the search – always tendentious – for the psychological origins of political beliefs. It goes back at least to the end of World War II, when a sociologist named Theodor Adorno developed what he called the “F-scale” to detect the “authoritarian personality.” “F” was for “fascist,” needless to say. Adorno and his colleagues set in train the notion that “science” proved the rigidity, close-mindedness, and habitual fear of people who resisted the leftist beliefs of… Theodor Adorno and his colleagues. Such traits were in fact “pre-fascist tendencies,” Adorno said. So keep your eye on those Eisenhower Republicans!
Adorno arrived at his sweeping conclusions by studying questionnaires filled out by 180 respondents drawn from various locations near his lab, including the University of California, a mental hospital (these were not the same place), San Quentin, and the local Lion’s Club. Science can be so easy sometimes! It helped, too, that Adorno and his colleagues, as the great historian Christopher Lasch pointed out, “arrived at their conclusions in advance through a set of self-validating measures.”
But you don’t need a nose for tautologies to find the flaws in politicized social science. The nonsense is undisguised, evident at a glance. Here is the money sentence from “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” a 2006 study that is the most cited (more than 3,400 citations) and influential work in the literature: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain [the need for] order.
Allow me a personal note and an anecdotal observation. As a political writer in Washington, I have spent most of my professional life surrounded by every ideological type, from gold bugs to open-borders absolutists, from Marxists-in-disguise to anarcho-capitalists, and every stop in between.
Conservatives generally, and right-leaning libertarians especially, are nearly always the most ardent defenders of free markets. And free markets are the surest paths to change and disruption, which the social psychologists tell us conservatives want to avoid at all costs.
Indeed, anyone who hopes to “reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty” is more likely to embrace the (misleading and self-defeating) nostrums of the managerial state than take a chance with the freewheeling and undetermined outcomes of the marketplace. If you want to “avoid change and disruption,” stay as far away from capitalism as possible.
Which leaves us with a question: How can pseudo-scientists maintain their distorted caricature of free marketers in the face of such obvious contradictory evidence from the real world?
Well, the stakes are very high. It’s important to left-wing researchers to belittle their political opponents by attacking their psychological dispositions. It’s even more important to discredit, indirectly but conclusively, the ideas of their political opponents by attacking the opponents themselves.
After all, the world that capitalism creates – a world of prosperity, innovation, personal liberation, social mobility, and material progress – is hard to argue with.
But if a belief in capitalism is little more than an irrational artifact of mental illness, arguing against it is beside the point. Social “science” tells us so.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and was one of the founding editors of The Weekly Standard.