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  • Writer's pictureCorey Lee Wilson

Why Campus Concepts Creep to the Left

Nick Haslam's 2016 paper, titled "Concept Creep" shows that many concepts in psychology have changed over time (e.g., bullying, trauma, addiction). As reported by Conor Friedersdorf in the April 19, 2016 issue of The Atlantic, “Meanings shift so that these concepts apply to more phenomena and smaller phenomena.“

He explains in more detail using Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s 2015 paper, “Why Concepts Creep to the Left,” that extends Haslam’s analysis to explain why they change in one direction only: they “creep to the left.” As psychology has become politically purified, its concepts have morphed to make them more useful to social justice advocates trying to prosecute and convict their opponents. This political shift poses a grave danger to the credibility of psychology.

In the process of writing a political diversity paper, Haidt learned that psychology is not unique in undergoing a political purification process with rising hostility toward political minorities. Most fields in the social sciences and humanities seem to be experiencing these trends (Klein & Stern, 2009).

As Friedersdorf reports in The Atlantic: Psychology (like almost all of the other social sciences and humanities) has a serious problem. Haslam (2016) has shown that their concepts are creeping to the left in ways that make psychology ever more appealing to the left and ever less appealing to the right. Haslam has shown that their membership is creeping to the left as well, as part of a broad national trend of rising affective polarization.

In brief, the loss of political diversity in many universities--and in psychology in particular--at a time of rising cross-partisan hostility has amplified the already powerful process of motivated reasoning. Concepts are morphing to become ever more useful to “intuitive prosecutors” (Tetlock, 2002) who are prosecuting their enemies in the culture war.

It’s problematic when an academic field leans left, as psychology did before the 1990s. In a free society few fields will end up with perfectly proportional representation by politics, gender, race, or other criteria. As long as there are sure to be some conservatives (or women, or African Americans) to review papers, speak at symposia, and otherwise challenge the biases and prejudices of the dominant group, the scientific process of institutionalized questioning can function.

But when the ratio of liberals to conservatives rises above a certain point (Five-to one? Ten-to-one?) we get a phase change. People start to assume that everyone in the room shares their politics. They start making jokes, from the lectern, about conservatives. They create a hostile climate, and the few remaining non-liberals begin to hide their views. Non-liberal graduate students and assistant professors are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, as many have told Dr. Haidt (see their stories at Haidt, 2011).

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