Psychology: The New Liberal Frontier

Professor Philip Zimbardo

Providing more resources to inner city children does more harm than good. Or at least that is what Harvard Psychologist Doctor Richard Cabot’s Cambridge Somerville Experiment seemed to suggest when it concluded “the general impact of treatment appeared to have been damaging”. This study was widely cited as evidence against the proliferation of better services to underprivileged youths in the United States. It was later discovered that the experiment, which purported to provide students with counseling, did not employ any trained psychotherapists or professional counselors. What is more, its author, Doctor Richard Cabot was a well-known transcendentalist, an ardent believer in self-reliance and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s close friend.

If you consider that the author’s political inclinations can bias his or her research, does it not concern you that 72% of college professors are liberal compared to 15% who identify as conservatives. Not to mention the fact that the most liberal faculties tend to be found in humanities and social science departments. Not only are the authors liberal, the actual subjects being tested are predominantly liberal. According to one article “68% of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96% from Western industrialized nations”. Moreover, “67% were undergraduates studying psychology”. The set of people being used for experimentation is highly skewed towards western college level students. This sampling bias does more than simply skew for demographic factors like age, education level and language, it skews for political views. A 2011 survey of American college freshman conducted by UCLA found that their “political views [are] decidedly more liberal” than they have been in the past. According to the study in 2011 7.6% more college students identified themselves as liberals than conservatives.

What does this suggest about narratives on human nature that have been proposed and supported by respected universities – particularly Stanford? Stanford has released a number of psychological studies that have dramatically redefined the way that intellectuals perceive human psychology. Perhaps most famously, Stanford’s Philip Zimbardo published his results from the “Stanford Prison Experiment”. This groundbreaking piece of work, which was released amidst conversations concerning the guilt and responsibility of those following orders, seemed to suggest that situational pressures could lead any human into evil actions. Situational attribution, a central tenet of liberal ideology, is the notion that actions can be predicted based on situational pressures and factors. This experiment has been widely cited in support of policies like commander responsibility that have had a significant effect on American legal theory. What is not very well known is that the Stanford Prison experiment only had 24 male subjects, all Stanford undergraduates. Do we believe that 24 Stanford men are a sufficiently comprehensive sample size from which to extract conclusions about human nature? What is perhaps even more concerning is that this study is just a highly salient example of the incredible amount of research Stanford has produced to back social psychology. At its core, social psychology is a rejection of praxeology – the perspective that human beings are their own operators.

Given that those coming up with the hypotheses to be tested are predominantly liberal and those being tested are disproportionately liberal, should we not be more skeptical of their findings? The departments of psychology’s social psychologists promote ideas that contradict notions of individualism, free will and praxeology which underpin conservative perspectives on the world. Would a liberal embrace a study conducted by a conservative professor on twenty-five conservative students that substantiates a conservative claim? The sample sizes are far too skewed for them to be used as inferential data about widespread human nature and how society works.

The question remains, is Stanford’s psychology department promoting liberal theories? Does Stanford have a responsibility to ensure parity between liberal and conservative publications from the point of view of intellectual integrity?  I have taken psychology classes with very well respected professors who have, in all seriousness, claimed to work on the President’s political campaign!

Stanford is undoubtedly a liberal school but there is something particularly concerning about shrouding political theory in empirical research. No one who sees the data can deny that there is clearly a prevalent bias towards liberal views in both the hypotheses and execution of experimental psychology.

Conservatives widely acknowledge that academia has a significant liberal bend. In the case of psychology, however, the implications of politically motivated findings are highly concerning. By supporting liberal perspectives with “research” and “evidence”, schools are implicitly substantiating what is ultimately a point of view on humans nature. Conservatives, who believe that humans are capable of making their own decisions independent of their surroundings, are being said to contradict what the “research shows” but the research seems to be no more unbiased than an opinion in this case.

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