To Follow the Data is Neither Liberal nor Conservative

My last blog essay reported surveys that show social psychologists are mostly political liberals. But I also noted that “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.”

Fresh examples of such evidence-based reasoning come from two recent analyses. The first Analysis has been welcomed by some conservatives (who doubt that sexism is rife in academic hiring).  The second has been welcomed by liberals (who see economic inequality as psychologically and socially toxic).

(1) Using both actuarial and experimental studies, Cornell psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams looked for possible sexism in academic hiring, but found that “in tenure-track hiring, faculty prefer female job candidates over identically qualified male [candidates].”

Their Chronicle of Higher Education defense of their work reminded me of a long-ago experience. Hoping to demonstrate sexism in action, I attempted a class replication of Philip Goldberg’s famous finding that people give higher ratings to an article attributed to a male (John McKay) than to a female (Joan McKay). Finding no such difference, my student, Janet Swim (now a Penn State social psychologist) and I searched for other attempts to replicate the finding. Our published meta-analysis, with Eugene Borgida and Geoffrey Maruyama, confirmed Ceci/ Williams’ negligible finding.

Neither Ceci/ Williams today, nor us yesterday, question other manifestations of cultural sexism. Rather, in both cases, “Our guiding principle,” to use Ceci/ Williams’ words, “has been to follow the data wherever it takes us.”

(2) Following the data also has led social psychologists to see the costs of extreme inequality. As I noted in an earlier TalkPsych essay, “psychologists have found that places with great inequality tend to be less happy places, . . . with greater health and social problems, and higher rates of mental illness.”

In soon-to-be-published research, Shigehiro Oishi and Selin Kesebir observe that inequality also explains why economic growth often does not improve human happiness. My most oft-reprinted figure, below, shows that Americans today are no happier than they were in 1957 despite having triple the average income. But average income is not real income for most Americans. If the top 1 percent experience massive income increases, that could raise the average but not the actual income for most.

Indeed, real (inflation-adjusted) median U.S. wages have in fact been flat for some years now. With the rising economic tide lifting the yachts but not the rowboats, might we be paying a psychological price for today’s greater inequality? By comparing economic growth in 34 countries, Oishi and Kesebir show that economic growth does improve human morale when it is widely distributed, but not when “accompanied by growing income inequality . . . . Uneven growth is unhappy growth.”

Ergo, it’s neither conservative nor liberal to follow the data, and—as text authors and essayists—to give the data a voice.