Do social psychologists have an ideological aversion to evolutionary psychology?

GettyImages-171584273.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

A new survey of beliefs held by social psychologists (335 mostly US-based members of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology) has confirmed previous reports that the field is overwhelmingly populated by researchers of a left-wing, liberal bent. What’s more, David Buss and William von Hippel – the evolutionary psychologists who conducted and analysed the survey – say their findings, published open-access in Archives of Scientific Psychology, suggest that some social psychologists may be opposed, for ideological reasons, to insights rooted in evolutionary psychology.

Buss and von Hippel add that compounding matters is an irony – the desire of some researchers to signal their ideological stance and commitment to others who share their political views, which is a manifestation of the evolved human adaptation to form coalitions. “Part of this virtue signalling entails rejecting a caricature of evolutionary psychology that no scientist actually holds,” they write.

In terms of the political bias among social psychologists, Buss and von Hippel found that 95 per cent were mostly liberal and left-wing in their views (also, among the US respondents, only 4 had voted Republican in the prior Presidential election while 305 had voted Democrat).

Quizzing the social psychologists on their views of evolutionary theory, Buss and von Hippel found that they overwhelmingly accepted the principles of Darwinian evolution and also that it applied to humans, but when it came to whether evolutionary theory applies to human psychology and behaviour, the sample was split, with many social psychologists rejecting this notion.

Digging deeper into the survey results, there was no evidence that the social psychologists were averse to evolutionary psychology for religious reasons, but many did reject the idea that humans might be inherently violent (in certain situations) or that some people are widely considered more physically attractive than others due to universal evolved standards of attractiveness – perhaps, Buss and von Hippel suggested, this is because “they dislike the implications regarding the dark side of human nature.”

Next, Buss and von Hippel asked the social psychologists about their views on the truth of five hot button statements related to the biological basis of average sex differences, such as whether such differences are primarily genetic rather than environmental, whether sex-differentiated hormones play a role, and whether it might be more difficult for men than women to stay faithful in long-term romantic relationships.

Answers to three of these five hot-button questions accounted for a small but statistically significant amount of the variance in the social psychologists’ position on whether evolutionary theory applies to human psychology and their self-reported political ideology. This pattern is consistent with the idea that, while the relation between political ideology and scientific beliefs is complex, some social psychologists are inclined to reject evolutionary psychology findings on ideological grounds (in keeping with this interpretation, a substantial portion of the sample said it would be bad if the hot-button findings were widely reported).

As a case in point, Buss and von Hippel highlight the recent book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by psychologist Cordelia Fine – a text that argues against biological differences between the sexes (and in favour of sociological explanations) and which won wide praise from journalists and left-leaning scientists around the globe, while at the same time receiving scathing criticism from evolutionary biologists and psychologists with relevant expertise in evolutionary science.

Buss and von Hippel argue that Fine and others are motivated by social justice goals (in this case gender equality) to reject findings from evolutionary biology and psychology – or a caricature of them. But they believe this is a mistake, not only for the obvious reason that it is wrong to misrepresent the evidence, but also because important moral principles – such as equality – should not be founded on the the idea that there are no biological differences between women and men. Here they quote the author and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who argued, “… equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.”

Buss and von Hippel think that, motivated by principles of social justice, many social psychologists are ideologically opposed to what they mistakenly think evolutionary psychology argues for – namely genetic determinism, environmental irrelevance, and the idea that attempts to change human behaviour are doomed to fail. In fact, these are erroneous caricatures and evolutionary psychology does not espouse any of these beliefs. It does though recognise that we are not blank slates and that our minds and behaviour have been shaped by evolution in important ways.

Critically, Buss and von Hippel make the point that recognising our evolved psychological adaptations and predilections will actually lead to more effective efforts toward social justice (on the other hand, denying the biological roots of human nature will surely blind researchers from understanding some of the important factors at play in the social injustices that they seek to address). The pair add that, ironically, it is the evolved human tendency to form coalitions that leads “…social scientists to signal ideological commitments to their presumptive coalitions rather than to ferret out the most compelling scientific theories and empirical findings.”

On an optimistic note, Buss and von Hippel point out that their survey found that a substantial minority of social psychologists did endorse findings rooted in evolutionary biology. But still there is a long way to go until the schism in psychological and theoretical perspectives is bridged – a situation they believe is likely made worse by the lack of proper training in evolutionary sciences in psychology*. “Not a single degree-granting institution in the United States, to our knowledge, requires even a single course in evolutionary biology as part of a degree in psychology,” they write, adding that this is “an astonishing educational gap that disconnects psychology from the rest of the life sciences.”

Psychological barriers to evolutionary psychology: Ideological bias and coalitional adaptations

* In the UK, undergrad psychology degrees must follow the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s benchmark statement for psychology, which lists evolutionary psychology as an example topic within the compulsory subject area of Biological Psychology (PDF; see Section 3.3). BPS accredited courses must “reflect contemporary learning, research and practice in psychology” and ensure “adequate breadth and depth of coverage” of the subject areas outlined in the QAA benchmark statement.

Note: the title of this post was changed on Nov 29 2018 (together with a couple of minor changes to the main text) following a request from the authors of the target paper.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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