Why Universities Have a Liberal Bias: It's Science!

We often hear this lament from American conservatives: the majority of our universities are run by liberals, attended by liberals, and turning out more liberals by the thousand. Theories abound as to why this is. Perhaps we're dealing with a vast conspiracy of power-hungry eggheads, masterminding schemes of liberal indoctrination from ivory towers full of pipe smoke.

Perhaps—but we don't think so. We think there's a reasonable explanation for all of it: science. Specifically, personality psychology.

Personality psychologists studying the makeup of human character have identified five major factors of personality. One of these factors is Openness, which at its most fundamental describes a tendency to abstract thinking. People who are high in Openness enjoy abstract, complex concepts, playing with ideas, and using their imaginations. People who are low in Openness prefer dealing with the concrete: people and things, rather than ideas. They like to occupy their time with practical, useful activities and see fantasy and philosophy as a waste of time.

Openness scores relate to a variety of interesting things. For instance, people who are low in Openness are more likely to fill their leisure time with common, mainstream interests: major league sports, blockbuster movies, bestselling romance novels. People who are high in Openness are more likely to trot off to an art museum or the opera. The guy you see at the coffee shop who always has his head buried in a book of poetry is almost certainly high in Openness.

Openness also relates to an interest in intellectual inquiry. If you're plagued by existential questions about the meaning of life, guess what? You're probably high in Openness. Low Openness people would rather live their lives than question the meaning of them.

University professors are almost always high in Openness. A career in academia requires a near constant focus on abstract, complex ideas. Academics spend their time formulating hypotheses and doing advanced, theoretical research. Professors also must enjoy an intellectual environment and be inclined to laugh at physics jokes, two things that are tough for people low in Openness.

The final piece of the puzzle: Openness is related to political affiliation. High Openness scorers are more likely to challenge authority and toss out accepted norms. Accordingly, they are more likely to be politically liberal—although not always. Low Openness scorers are more likely to embrace tradition and support the status quo.

It's thought that because people low in Openness are less inclined towards abstract thought, they rely more on past experience when formulating their beliefs. They are less likely to use their imaginations to envision a new and different future. If this is true, it could explain why people low in Openness tend to be politically conservative: they want to stick to what they know has worked in the past, rather than trying new and unproven ideas.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that an intellectual attitude and a politically liberal one are statistically linked. People who are likely to want to work at a university are also more likely to have liberal beliefs. It's not a conspiracy. It's just science.

To see how likely you are to work at a university, wear tweed, and chortle heartily at a joke about 18th century literature, take our How Open Are You? quiz.

Molly Owens

Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. Since 2006, she has specialized in helping individuals and organizations utilize personality assessments to develop their potential.

In 2012, Molly founded Truity with a mission to make robust, scientifically validated personality assessments accessible to everyone who may benefit from them.

Molly is an ENTP and lives in San Francisco, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and racing toy cars with her son.


ssturtevant says...

That explains a lot.

Guest (not verified) says...

Nice theory, but flawed, since most professors in the sciences lean to the conservative side. I don't think ideas get anymore abstract and complex than nuclear physics and theoretical organic chemistry... These professors would (by your definition) fall into the "Openness" category.

SamPD says...

Um... Seems somewhat ambigious...

Guest (not verified) says...

Sure this would make sense if liberal and conservative were meant to be taken literally, but they are not. There is a liberal platform of ideas and a conservative one. It no longer has anything to do with maintaining the status quo. No, professors are increasingly liberal because of government funding of research and education in general. Fiscal conservatives are not for this kind of thing, and therefore it is in the professors best interest to be a fiscal liberal. Very little to do with openness, in my opinion. I'm a libertarian, so I agree with certain "liberal" viewpoints, but certainly not the welfare state or the state intervening in education more than it already does.

subluminusx says...

The problem here lies in equating concepts with others, and confusing the point. This makes perfect sense to me. Knowledge of a person who is "X or Y" in contradiction to the conclusion of the article doesn't mean that it is substantial enough evidence to invalidate the position. A person can be open, able to handle abstract ideas, and have a very concrete set of personal values that are similar to those other conservatives. And the article mentions this as a tendency, not an absolute. This is a pattern recognized through inquiry, not a stereotype that all professors, academics, and scientist are liberals. The point is that the instances of "X or Y variations" doesn't mean anything in the face of the actual demographically related phenomenon about how people align themselves politically. Unless you took a more critical look at what position these people actually have on various issues, and their education on said subjects, then there is no way you can conclude that this article is false on it's basis. I have rigid beliefs about somethings that align with liberal ideals, so I think the issue is a contrived notion of what liberal and conservative semantically mean, rather than a flaw in the position stated in this article.

There is a belief that conservatives, "Stick to their guns", and "Liberals just do whatever they want", and that is a false dichotomy. Liberals and Conservatives are not such polar extremes, and the writer of this article made clear effort to avoid that pitfall. Liberals can "stick to their guns" just as much as Conservatives, and have just as fixed beliefs. So the contrast is over emphasis on convention over adaptation, past verses future, old traditions verse new ways of doing things. Open people are very adaptable given the information provided through inquiry, and as such change how they operate within that concept. Whereas less open people tend to just get a headache trying to imagine a world or concepts any different from the ones they have known, thus anytime they experience an idea outside their worldview it's unpleasant. But open people are okay with the idea that the things they know and conclude from said knowledge could very well be wrong, and aren't uneasy with being on the cutting edge of new knowledge, that can and does reshape our understanding of reality. And you have to remember, that no one knows all there is to know about all subjects available to human knowledge or experience. Also, I think there is some mischaracterization between liberal, libertarian and progressive. Conservativism in America has a very "Us Verses Them" flavor, with the added benefit of being falsely equated as other things.

Just like any given demographic of people, all of them could have varying degrees of understanding, and wildly varying positions on many subjects. Not all conservatives are "the same". Being educated in a particular field doesn't make someone omniscient. People are not such one dimensional beings, we can be well educated on a variety of subjects then be ignorant, and have no interests in others. However, faced with a change in their understanding given new knowledge an open person will adapt, and a less open person will reject such knowledge for preference of what they know. But individual perspective is skewed, and people tend to feel comfortable with concepts that make sense to their experience. However, a person's given state of knowledge and/or ignorance is not sufficient to support the claim that this article is wrong and it has a valid point supported by evidence. The key with science is that things like personal feelings, anecdotes, traditions and your own experiences are inconsequential, and irrelevant to its pursuit. The data shows the truth, whether you know someone who is a statistical anomalous or not. Simply because you don't know the state of knowledge a person has about a given concept or position doesn't invalidate the conclusion. To state otherwise is a matter of false equivocation, an assumption that statistical variation on it's own equals falsehood. Statistical variation happens, and these variations have an explainable cause that remains unknown without inquiry.

That is why we have science, as it is meant to operate around our irrationalities, emotions, and superstitions to give us reliable, reproducible answers to our place in the universe.

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