Everyone is biased

My first blog post tells the story of my discovery of the conditions that reveal the political biases of liberals and conservatives. It’s also a story of coming to terms with my own biases.

I was liberal before I knew what being liberal meant—for example, I supported same- sex  marriage before I knew that this was a “liberal” as opposed to a “conservative” belief, or that this support put me more in step with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. My politicization occurred in 2003 when I was transitioning from an undergraduate to a social psychology graduate student, while at the same time the U.S. was transforming its foreign policy to include preemptive war. My moral intuition that the Iraq War was unjust, and my linking it to the policies of a conservative Republican administration, transformed me from an intuitive liberal into a political one.

I then naturally gravitated toward psychological research linking political conservatism to an assortment of nasty dispositions: Rigidity, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, hypersensitivity to threat, etc. (see Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003, for a review). What struck a particularly resonant chord with me was Bob Altemeyer’s (1996) work on right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), which captured my 2003 perceptions of our country’s leaders and followers alike: Strict adherence to traditional morality, willful submission to established authority, and aggression on behalf of such authority. I was especially interested in his finding that people high in RWA (who are typically conservative) apply many hypocritical double standards in their political judgments, whereas people low in RWA (who are typically liberal) are more fair-minded and balanced. For example, his research showed that whereas people high in RWA were more supportive of Christian than Muslim mandatory school prayer, people low in RWA opposed Christian and Muslim mandatory school prayer equally.

Inspired by this work, I set out as a graduate student in social psychology to devise other scenarios with which to snare people high in RWA in the web of their own double standards. I was able to reproduce Altemeyer’s findings from his mandatory school prayer scenario. However, in other scenarios, I discovered biases on both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps even more surprisingly to me, I also discovered biases only among people low in RWA. These findings suggested that the right did not have a monopoly on bias—however, the question was, why were these disparate patterns of bias emerging? To answer this question, I reflected on the fact that people low in RWA value individual autonomy and freedom of choice (Altemeyer, 1996). Thus, for them, it shouldn’t matter whether the mandated school prayer is Christian, Muslim, or Pastafarian—the very premise of mandatory school prayer is ideologically objectionable. For people high in RWA, their support for society-wide adherence social norms makes mandatory prayer an ideologically acceptable premise, and subsequently opens them up to biased judgments.

These insights led me to develop the ideologically objectionable premise model, or IOPM, which assumes that people on the political left and right are equally likely to approach political judgments with their ideological blinders on. That said, they will only do so when the premise of a political judgment is ideologically acceptable. If it’s objectionable, any preferences for one group over another will be short-circuited, and biases won’t emerge. The IOPM thus allows for biases to emerge only among liberals, only among conservatives, and among both liberals and conservatives.

Several psychological experiments have produced results in line with my model. For example, I reasoned that setting aside space in public schools for voluntary prayer would satisfy the individual autonomy values of people low in RWA while simultaneously satisfying the tradition-minded values of people high in RWA. As expected, while people high in RWA more strongly supported Christian than Muslim school prayer space as before, people low in RWA now more strongly favored Muslim than Christian school prayer space. This reversal occurred because what was once objectionable to people low in RWA (i.e., mandatory prayer) became acceptable (i.e., voluntary prayer). (See Crawford, 2012; Crawford & Xhambazi, in press for more examples.) Together, these IOPM studies show that both liberals and conservatives are biased—but whether those biases emerge or not depends on the circumstances surrounding the judgment.

Conducting this research has taught me important lessons both as a scientist and as a citizen. As a scientist, it’s taught me the importance of asking research questions that might be inconsistent with my own personal political beliefs—a lesson unfortunately ignored by many social psychologists (this is an issue I will address in subsequent posts; for now, see Inbar & Lammers, 2012). As a citizen, it’s pushed me away from a knee-jerk liberalism to a more reflective examination of my own attitudes. My hope is that this IOPM research will serve as a reminder of our own hypocrisies, and as a check on our own political righteousness.


Altemeyer, B. (1996). The authoritarian specter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Crawford, J. T. (2012). The ideologically objectionable premise model: Predicted biased political judgments on the left and right. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (1), 138-151.

Crawford, J. T., & Xhambazi, E. (in press). Predicting political biases against the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. Political Psychology. doi: 10.1111/pops.12054

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 496–503.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.