August 31, 2015

The leftward drift

I came across an intriguing bit in Richard Nisbett's book Mindware which was about what he called the leftward drift. This leftward drift refers to the fact that the number of college and university students who self-identify as liberal or far left in their political orientation increase as they move through college. At the same time, the number of students who call themselves conservative or far left decreases. In other words, college makes many students drift to the left in their political views.

Nisbett describes how this happened to him, too, adding: "It seemed to me that my own leftward drift in college was the consequence not of spongelike absorption of professor's views or slavish imitation of my fellow students, but rather the result of coming independently to a better understanding of the nature of society and the kinds of things that improve it."

Then, he goes on to say: "But of course, my leftward drift was indeed the result in good part of social influence from students and professors" and "[A]s a social psychologist and former Ivy League professor, I can assure you that those professors (a) are indeed overwhelmingly liberal and (b) don't recognize the conformity pressures influencing their own opinions."

What intrigues me about this is the following. While, at first, Nisbett seemed to attribute his changing views mostly to his better understanding, he now attributes it, in good part, to social influence in the form of imitation or even pressure to conform. What he does not mention in his retrospective reflection is that his original explanation may also have been, in good part, true and an independent factor causing the leftward drift.

As Nisbett went through college, he also, as a psychology student, must have developed a different view on cognition, judgment, and other topics regarding people and psychology. If social influence is such a powerful factor, why not say about this develop that "of course, my changing views were in good part the result of social influence from students and professors" and "I can assure you that those professors (a) do indeed overwhelmingly have different views on judgment and cognition and (b) don't recognize the conformity pressures influencing their own opinions."

By not mentioning that there may also be a rational factor explaining the leftward drift, Nisbett's analysis seems to imply that the fact that colleges are hothouses of liberalism is a coincidental circumstance which sustains itself in good part through conformity pressure. Well, maybe, his eventual explanation wasn't such a bad one. Maybe, the political left in the US is, overall more reasonable and evidence based (when I read economists like Robert Frank, Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz, I get the impression that they are). Maybe, as students go through college, they become more independent of their parents' preferences and develop more appreciation for reason and evidence.

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