Curing Conservatism: Psychology’s Abuse of Research

March 1, 2007 by Shawn Smith

biased, anti-conservative psychological researchIn 1994, the controversial book The Bell Curve examined intelligence in American society and asserted that whites outperform other races on IQ tests. The American Psychological Association was quick to respond, launching a task force to meticulously scrutinize the methodology behind the book. Throughout dozens of publications, a veritable contest took place: who could most eloquently and irrevocably discredit The Bell Curve? The book was called polarizing, biased, and specious.

Why such a passionate response? Because my colleagues won’t tolerate the use of corrupt science against a group of unsuspecting targets.

Damn straight, they won’t! …Unless…

Unless those targets happen to be conservative.

Psychology Today recently offered an entirely uncritical account of two studies that characterize mainstream American conservatives as mentally and emotionally deficient. Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (John Jost et al., 2003) and Nursery School Personality and Political Orientation Two Decades Later (Jack & Jeanne Block, 2006) defamed conservatives and were treated as gospel.

My colleagues won’t tolerate the use of corrupt science against a group of unsuspecting targets… unless those targets happen to be conservative.

PT wasn’t the first to endorse the studies, and it won’t be the last. They have gained favorable treatment in both the professional literature and the mass media. But beneath a thin veneer of integrity, these studies are a morass of furious political ideology, circular reasoning, self-serving definitions, and a baffling degree of confirmation bias. Consider some of the sentiments tucked away in the footnotes and references:

  • Herbert McClosky, whose studies of conservatism shaped both papers, opined that “by every measure available to us, conservative beliefs are found most frequently among the uniformed, the poorly educated, and so far as we can determine, the less intelligent.” McClosky did not actually measured his subjects’ intelligence, but instead relied on the demographic data of people he had already branded as undesirable and, therefore, conservative.
  • In defining their study population, Jost and company characterized Joseph Stalin as a conservative, while they pled the Fifth regarding the likes of Mao, Castro, and Lenin. Militant leftists were thus excluded from the data pool, while fascists like Mussolini were judged to be characteristic of the right. This led to an absurdly skewed definition of contemporary liberalism and conservatism.
  • Jost and company unequivocally concluded that fear and aggression correlate with conservatism. Their sources? A World War Two-vintage Marxist, a contemporary ideologue who denies the existence of left-wing authoritarians, and a 1999 article offering unquestioning acceptance of each. The circularity is enough to make a person dizzy.

There’s much more, here and here.

Don’t expect others in my field to subject this abhorrent research to the same scrutiny that The Bell Curve received. Last year, our professional journals contained nearly 700 articles on the topic of cultural competence, which reportedly eschews maliciousness and degradation. Conservatives are excluded from that protection because – make no mistake about it – these “studies” are a shameless attempt to shape politics by vilifying the left’s ideological opponents.

Most psychologists are reasonable people. They’re also overwhelmingly liberal. Psychology ranks fifth highest in liberal domination among 72 academic disciplines (which, as a whole, tend to be dominated by liberals). 97% of articles with political content in the APA’s flagship journal, the American Psychologist, advanced liberal causes during the 1990s.

If scientific-looking studies maligned liberals as they do conservatives, psychologists would surely protest. But as it is, very few are motivated to question the methodology behind this agitprop. You can bet that there will be more of these studies, perhaps in time for the 2008 election.

Still, while I’m embarrassed that my profession tolerates these editorials-masquerading-as-research, I remain proud of my job. At the end of the day, we shrinks can solve problems that other medical professionals cannot. That is thanks to a mountain of rigorous clinical research aimed at real-world application.

The free-market lesson here? Vote with your wallet. Don’t patronize universities that sponsor this hateful nonsense. And if you are shopping for a psychologist, you have every reason to be suspicious. Ask tough questions and find one who won’t revile you for your views. I think you’ll find that those of us working in the trenches are primarily interested in the science of healing. We confine the most intolerant among us to the ivory tower.


Block, J. & Block, J.H. (2006). Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5), 734-749.

Dixit, J. (2007). The ideological animal. Psychology Today, 40(1), 81-86.

Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.

Redding, R.E. (2005). Sociopolitical diversity in psychology: the case for pluralism. In Wright, R.W. & Cummings, N.A. (eds), Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm. New York: Routledge.

Roper Center (1991, July/August). Politics of the professoriate. Public Perspective, 2, 86-87.