Claire Lehmann

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

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This post was published on Quillette on December 4 2015. Read the original article here.

The Sydney Symposium

At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology.

Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories.

Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract stated:

We…show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings above and beyond commitment to laissez-faire free markets. This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.

After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming.

“But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.”

His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology. The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.

Jussim explained that within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.

***

Jussim appears to have had an anti-authoritarian streak since day one. Born in Brooklyn 1955, his family moved to Long Island when he was twelve. He lost his mother the following year from illness, and after that, he lost his father as well, although this time not from illness, but from grief. It was at this tender age that Jussim entered into a life of self-reliance. Ferociously independent, Jussim describes having little respect for, or deference to, authority figures. In high school he says he purposely made life miserable for his teachers, and later he would become an anti-war activist.

In 1975, at the age of 20, he was a university dropout. He did not return again to study until four years later, when he began undergraduate psychology, and it was not until 1986, at the age of 30, that Jussim achieved his first publication. By this stage he was already married with a baby.

Jussim may not have known at this point that he was destined to continue living a life of non-conformity. He was a reformed delinquent and anti-Vietnam war activist. He had his PhD and a publication under his belt. He had settled down. His former life of rabble rousing and trouble making was over.

Or so he thought.

Very early in his career, Jussim faced a crisis of sorts. An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating – for three more decades.

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30%-50% could be replicated.

The reproducibility project follows in the wake of a crisis that has engulfed social psychology in recent years. A slew of classic studies have never been able to be fully replicated. (Replication is a benchmark of the scientific method. If a study cannot be replicated, it suggests that the results were a fluke, and not an accurate representation of the real world).

For example, Bargh, Chen and Burrows published one of the most famous experiments of the field in 19963. In it, students were divided into two groups: one group received priming with the stereotype of elderly people; the other students received no priming (the control group). When the students left the experiment, those who had been primed with the stereotype of the elderly, walked down a corridor significantly more slowly than the students assigned to the control. While it has never been completely replicated, it has been cited over 3400 times. It also features in most social psychology textbooks.

Another classic study by Darley & Gross published in 1983, found that people applied a stereotype about social class when they saw a young girl taking a math test, but did not when they saw a young girl not taking a math test.5 Two attempts at exact replication have failed.6 And both replication attempts actually found the opposite pattern – that people apply stereotypes when they have no other information about a person, but switch them off when they do.6

In the field of psychology, what counts as a “replication” is controversial. Researchers have not yet reached a consensus on whether a replication means that an effect of the same size was found. Or that an effect size was found within the same confidence intervals. Or whether it is an effect in the same direction. How one defines replication will likely impact whether one sees a “replication” as being successful or not. So while some of social psychology’s classic studies have not been fully replicated, there have been partial replications, and a debate still rages around what exactly constitutes one. But here’s the kicker: even in the partial replications of some of these stereotype studies, the research has been found to be riddled with p-hacking.4 (P-hacking refers to the exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom until a desirable result is found).

***

When I went through university as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of – stereotype accuracy – is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.7 This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so.7

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals.7 It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be.8

A Cool Reception

Studying the accuracy of stereotypes is risky business. For many, investigation into stereotypes is tantamount to endorsing bigotry. To understand why this is the case, one has to take a long view of the discipline’s history.

Social psychology arose from the ashes of World War 2. An entire generation had to come to terms with the legacy of the war, and the study of prejudice and authoritarianism naturally captured their imaginations. Gordon Allport, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, conceptualised stereotypes in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice as inaccurate, pernicious and unshakeable, and influential in shaping the social world9. From this point onwards, this conception has largely remained unchallenged.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:

“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. One academic, John Jost at New York University, who argues that conservatism is a form of motivated cognition, runs what he calls the Social Justice Lab. Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.

Jussim has weathered aloof, and at times openly hostile attitudes to his work for virtually three decades. In an email to me earlier in the year, he wrote that he felt like his work life has been lived in solitary confinement. It is possible that Jussim’s citation count – or impact factor – has been artificially suppressed. And for renegade academics such as Jussim to get published, they often must resort to sugar-coating and camouflaging their results, leaving important findings out of journal titles and abstracts.

Yet he points out that despite the hostility towards stereotype accuracy, he has been well treated by social psychology – having been given an American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1997 – and being cited by his peers over 6000 times. Jussim also points out that while doing research that breaks taboos and undermines political narratives is hard, it is not impossible. Ultimately the scientific method wins.

It is too early to know how research into stereotypes will unfold in the future. And we do not know yet if social psychology will ever be able to achieve ideological diversity, or realistically address its left-wing bias. What is certain, however, is that despite producing work that has been unwelcome and unpopular, Lee Jussim has remained a faithful servant to the scientific method. Even in the face of great personal costs.

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  2. Letter to a woke heart

    Twenty years ago, I would be standing beside you in total conviction, and true belief in the holy righteousness of the cause. Time however has a way of softening certainty, and one aspect of wisdom is remembering how wrong you can be.

    The second time I visited Cambodia to see the ruins and spend time with family I had a sobering experience. I visited a secret prison called “Tuol Sleng,” which translates to “Hill of the poisonous trees.” It was a facility where suspected counter revolutionaries were tortured into false confessions and executed during Khmer Rouge communist revolution.

    When I arrived, I was relieved to find out it was an audio tour. The thought of some local walking foreigners through this blood-soaked campus turned my stomach the whole ride over. I feared during the tour I might hear the guide say something like; “And this is the room where they killed my mother.” The most disturbing thing about this place was that the guards/torturers were largely between the ages of 12 and 18. Add to this the fact that the structures of this complex were originally a grade school and the extent of the horror starts to sink in.

    Knowing this, I can’t help the hair on the back of my neck standing up whenever I see another teenager being thrust into the political limelight to push a cause.

    I’ll spare you the details of what happened here, there save one. One of the rules given to prisoners upon entry, was they were not allowed to scream in pain while being “interrogated”, in order to extract a confession. You can’t get through a tour like that without tearing up when you think about what happened to human beings there.

    Our own country was touched by this. Americans on vacation, fishing off the coast where captured and brought there, believed to be CIA spies. They were tortured into false confessions and executed as a predetermined result. No one sent here survived unless they made it to the end of the war.

    After I left the prison, I went to see a very old woman. She was a low-level general in the Khmer Rouge, during the massacre. I had mixed feelings about meeting her on respectful terms. The idea that she had never killed or ordered anyone’s death was slim to none. I decided to meet her because of what she did.

    In the middle of a situation where everyone was killing everyone, and on a hot day, if the wind blew in the wrong direction all you would smell are the bodies rotting in pits, she found a sick teenage boy. He was not a member of the communist party. He was not a member of the military. He was no one of importance son. If she had been caught stealing food and whatever medication she could find in order to try to save him, chances are things would not have ended well for her. But she did it anyway. She hid him inside her house and took care of him. I think she did it just to hold on to some small piece of hope. It worked. She saved his life. He survived to have a family of his own.

    The reason I met her was to pay my respects, because the boy she saved is my wife’s father.

    I see the beginning of this starting in America. One suspected Trump supporter has already been stalked and executed in Portland Oregon with two shots to the chest. Another was shot in the face in Denver Colorado. At the very least they get beaten up when alone in the wrong situation. Trump supporters have already started taking their signs down, peeling their bumper stickers off, and putting their MAGA hats in the closet.  Regular people are scared. They have been forced into hiding. They will even lie to pollsters because they think they will wind up on some kind of list.

    Soon we are going to have an election. Before that, all these polls that seem deliberately inaccurate are going to narrow to 50/50.  Then I’m pretty sure the orange man will be reelected. This will be an even greater shock to the system than 2016. People on the left are going to immediately assume its fraudulent. The calls for revolution will flare like a forest fire and spread across our country in a blind rage. The violence will get worse and the death toll will mount. This time, because of how the news has misled people who believe what you do, and perhaps even themselves, it will feel like the world has betrayed you. Nothing will seem unjustified and you will want revenge.

    At some point, maybe around the time of his inauguration, someone with enough reach is going to suggest that “We need to know who the people who did this to us are. I want names.” In fact, Keith Olbermann, and Robert Reich have already said things like this.  It will start with going after people’s jobs and making empty threats, but it won’t stay there. Eventually you will be hunting down anyone who you think may have voted for the orange one and maybe even going after those who didn’t vote as passively complicit.

    At some point a backlash will happen. Enough frightened people will have been driven into the arms of the white nationalists and other nefarious groups just for a feeling of safety. Then they will have the numbers to mount a real demonstration. Instead of the pathetic 200 or so that showed up in Charlottes Ville, thousands will converge on Washington D.C. or somewhere else, and it will be an open carry march. Good people like you and Meghan are going to join the counter protest, just to prove to the world that most people here don’t judge others for being born with a tan. But hiding among you will be those who want an escalation to violent action.

    They will throw weapons at the nationalist and then hide behind the rest of you. The police will be so hamstrung at this point that they will not be able to do much. Then one of the worst ones will hit the white nationalist march with a Molotov cocktail, setting multiple people one fire. Then the white nationalists will open fire into the crowd.

    That is when Meghan is going to get hit. You will try to catch her as best you can and lay her down while you scream for help as the masses scatter around you. You will hold her the way you have when she went through a bad breakup, telling her she is going to be ok over and over. But the sound of her crying for her mom, getting quieter and quieter, is going to ring in your ears for the rest of your life. This will be the fuel that drives you to do things you never thought you could ever be capable of.

    At some point you will find yourself crying and shaking. You will be ordered to do something every fiber of who you are does not want to do. A psychotic killer will be questioning your loyalty to the movement. You will hesitate for as long as you can, until they tell you in no uncertain terms, if you don’t put a bullet in your childhood friends head, one will go in yours. Because she is smart enough to know that if you don’t, they will just kill both of you, she will cry and tell you its ok. Then she will look at you in a way where you know she is asking you; “please, just don’t let them get my kids.” When you nod your head, and make that promise, you will aim at her skull, close your eyes, and pull the trigger.

    After something like that you go numb. You don’t laugh, you don’t smile, and the food you eat has no taste. You don’t feel anything anymore. Until one hot day, when the wind blows in the wrong direction,  all you will smell are the bodies. That is when you will break and fall. You will remember that she is in there somewhere, rotting in a pit, and you did it. Eventually You will manage to release your clenched fetal position and pick yourself up off the ground. Then, maybe it will be you, wandering across the burnt-out husk of what used to be this country, desperately searching for just one person to save.

    Its not too late to stop.

    But we are running out of time.

    And if you need to, its ok to cry.

    -Alexander

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