Why are Social Psychologists Mostly Liberals?

Social psychology’s progressivism has been no secret. Our values inform our interests in topics such as prejudice, sexism, violence, altruism, and inequality.

Still, I was a bit stunned, while attending the January, 2011, Society of Personality and Social Psychology convention, when our colleague Jonathan Haidt—as part of his plea for more ideological diversity—asked for a show of hands. How many of us considered ourselves “liberals”? A sea of hands arose—80 to 90 percent of the thousand or so attendees, Haidt estimated (here). And how many considered themselves “centrists” or “moderates”? About 20 hands rose. “Libertarians?” A dozen. “Conservatives?” Across that ballroom, three hands were visible.

As one of the respondents, I remember thinking: If the media are here, we’re going to read about this. And, indeed: see here and here.

And now comes another survey that makes the same point. For an upcoming chapter for a volume on politics in psychology, social psychologist Bill von Hippel surveyed fellow members of the invitation-only Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Among his findings (reported in an e-mail to participants): “When asked your preference in the last presidential election, Obama beat Romney 305 to 4.”

To our credit, we social psychologists check our presumptions against data. We have safeguards against bias. And we aim to let the chips fall where they may (which includes research that documents the social toxicity of pornography and the benefits of covenant relationships that satisfy the human need to belong).

Still, by a huge margin, social psychologists are liberal (much as certain other professions, such as medicine, the military, and law enforcement tend to be populated by conservatives).

Why social psychology’s liberalism? Does our discipline’s focus on the power of social situations make liberalize us? Are psychology departments less open to admitting and hiring conservatives? Or do liberals self-select into academia, including the behavioral sciences? Such are among the answers proposed.