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How political bias affects social science research


From Christie Aschwanden at Five Thirty Eight:

In part one, the researchers presented 2,560 participants2 with 306 abstracts related to political beliefs or behavior drawn from 10 years’ worth of Society for Personality and Social Psychology meetings. Raters were asked to assess how the research characterized political conservatives and political liberals. They were also asked the extent to which conservatives were the target of “explanation.”

Suppose, for instance, a study finds that conservatives are less likely to change their opinions on moral issues than liberals are when exposed to counterarguments. “The researchers could explain this as ‘conservatives are cognitively rigid, inflexible, and resistant to new arguments,’ ” said Eric Luis Uhlmann, a psychologist at INSEAD in Singapore and the study’s corresponding author. “However, they could just as easily have interpreted this as ‘liberals are wishy-washy, overly flexible, and don’t stand by their principles.’ ” Uhlmann and his colleagues asked participants to rate whether a study’s findings were equally discussed in relation to liberals and conservatives, or instead were pinned on one group over the other.

Sure enough, the abstracts more often explained their findings in terms of conservative ideas rather than liberal ones, and conservatives were described more negatively in the eyes of the raters. More.

The pronounced political bias is probably a factor in the unusually large number of research scandals in psychology. Who’s going to question findings that confirm everybody’s worldview?

See also: Stanford Prison Experiment findings a “sham” – but how much of social psychology is legitimate anyway?


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