BOB GARFIELD: It’s no fun when you’re in the business of explaining the world and you find out you have big fat gaps in your own understanding. For instance, the 2016 election inspired a freak out in journalism when many of us realized how entrenched we really were in our own political echo chambers.
Well, it turns out that there was a similar reaction in the field of social psychology, where much of the research about voter behavior flopped.
JAY VAN BAVEL: There's a number of ideas that came to my mind, thinking about where we went wrong or what our blind spots were. So, like many labs, I started scrambling.
BOB GARFIELD: Jay Van Bavel is director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Lab at New York University. He studies group identities and political beliefs, and now he’s reflecting on the field itself, which is populated with researchers, journal editors, peer reviewers and especially the student research subjects, who largely conform to a stereotype of coastal elites. Can the study of identity and belief be contaminated by the identity and belief of the people in the process? That would be weird!
JAY VAN BAVEL: WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, and what that means is we learn how to persuade those types of people. And so, psychologists have pointed out that our samples are only capturing a subset of human experience. If you’re looking at people's group identities and how they want to invest their time socially versus on academics, those are going to vary a lot. And so, if I do a study with NYU undergraduates, it turns out that NYU undergraduates are off the charts in their need for being distinctive and standing out and being different.
When I was doing research at Ohio State University, the student body is quite a bit different; it’s a public school. Students there want to fit in. When you walked around campus there, everybody was wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes t-shirt or jersey. Certain research that we do in, in one context won't hold up in another.
BOB GARFIELD: All right now, I am scared to death to ask this question. Unless I’m missing something, does this mean that the mind of a WEIRD subject, to use the acronym, works differently than the mind of a less affluent, less educated resident of a red state far from the coasts?
JAY VAN BAVEL: A huge component of our mental life is gonna be common. We’re gonna perceive colors in similar ways and have some of the same fundamental needs. But we’re gonna have different motives, different norms, and these manifest in how we behave in our day-to-day lives. That’s being all driven by differences in the mind.
BOB GARFIELD: That gets into some scary territory, if differences in values reflect differences in cognition.
JAY VAN BAVEL: Yeah, there’s differences between the left and right, in terms of basic values. You know, concerns for authority and loyalty, group loyalty, differ between the left and the right, on average.
BOB GARFIELD: And which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do different mechanisms of cognition determine our politics or do our politics inform how we process the outside world?
JAY VAN BAVEL: So, all right, I’ll tell you this. To me, this was like mind-blowing data when I saw it for the first time. Something like 40% of our political preferences are explained by genetics. So identical twins have more in common, in terms of their politics, than non-identical twins.
There was a big study that came out of England a couple of years ago scanning the brain structures of liberals and conservatives, and they found that there were some key differences. Conservatives had larger gray matter volume density in their amygdala, a region of the brain that’s involved in emotional processing. Liberals had larger gray matter volume density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that’s involved in conflict monitoring and, and control. Certainly, there's not a simple explanation for what these brain structure differences mean but it suggests that there are some deep differences.
BOB GARFIELD: But it's not just the research subjects. The [LAUGHS] whole social science racket is infected by liberalism.
JAY VAN BAVEL: So there are some psychologists who've argued that in social psychology there's an overwhelming number of liberals as faculty and graduate students. What they’re arguing is that by having a lot of liberal faculty, we are gonna be more receptive to liberal ideas, we’re gonna want to publish papers that have liberal conclusions, and we might even go easier on those papers. So if you submit a paper to me, I might be more likely to accept it because it comports with my worldview. To my knowledge, there is no good evidence that that's the case.
My lab is actually doing a study right now to try to test that. We’ve taken 200 studies where other groups have come along later and tried to replicate them, to see if those same effects hold in other situations in other labs. And we’re gonna be able to identify just exactly what percentage of studies have some degree of liberal or conservative slant and then whether that slant makes them less robust in the future.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t see that it matters a whole lot whether the subjects of any particular piece of social science is political in some way, it's what the norms of values and the norms of response are deemed to be. Maybe what the liberal researchers and their liberal subjects are accepting as norms do not apply across the board. Doesn't that kind of predetermine the results?
JAY VAN BAVEL: So I think I take your point. When scientists are constructing and designing studies, they could ask certain questions and neglect to ask others and that might increase the likelihood of a certain set of conclusions. There's no question that those types of things can seep into research.
The question is whether that is actually happening in a way that we can measure. And a lot of times the criticisms are anecdotal. It's easy to find one or two papers that you don't like that you think have an ideological bent, and I can develop a story that, you know, it’s friends of the editor over here or these people have this theoretical axe to grind but they get all their friends to review it over here.
We are human, so science is done by humans. Two things. The first is that we have a system for rooting those out and for evaluating them. And the second thing is there is a reward structure for being an iconoclast in science. So if you rise to the top of the field based on your theory and you’ve been supported by, you know, a number of people who are your acolytes or share your belief system, if I find a flaw in your theory and you've made a big name of yourself, suddenly there's a huge reward structure for me criticizing what everybody else takes as a dominant theory. And so, that is, in part, how science builds on itself.
For example, there is a lot of research suggesting that conservatives were more biased against certain minority groups. Some papers have recently come out suggesting that liberals are just as biased, if it's an ideological outgroup. That research also suggests maybe one of the reasons, for example, that conservatives are biased against African Americans might be, in part, because they know that group is not gonna vote for their political interests. And so, what that suggests is that there might be some equivalence between the left and right, in terms of outgroup bias. Those critical papers that are recent ended up in top, top journals because they were taking on a idea that had sunk in. You know, now there's other questions: are those the best studies for that topic? And, to me, that’s just how science works.
BOB GARFIELD: Jay, I must ask you one last thing. This conversation is almost destined to fly across right-wing media as the smoking gun, aha –
[VAN BAVEL LAUGHS]
- there is this scientist and this liberal radio host confessing that their work is infused with the most sinister and structural liberal bias. Does that make you hesitant to do the work you do?
JAY VAN BAVEL: Yeah, I told all my students when we started this project that someone’s gonna hate us, no matter what the results are. [LAUGHING] But to me the question’s too important to ignore, and we’re following the strictest procedures scientifically, writing down all our hypotheses and how we’re going to analyze it before we touch the data. And we’re not coding it. We’re paying people outside our lab to code it. So we’re gonna do the most strictest scientific tests and we’re gonna let the chips fall where they may.
And here’s the thing, and this is why science is great: If there is bias, it will start a conversation about how to get rid of it. We can identify her own biases and then design new strategies and ways of doing work to get rid of them.
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BOB GARFIELD: Jay, thank you very much.
JAY VAN BAVEL: Okay, thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Jay Van Bavel is director of the Social Perception and Evaluation Lab at NYU.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, On the Media suffers a flare-up of doubt and self-examination. At least Bob does.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.