On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy — An Interview with Clay Routledge

On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy — An Interview with Clay Routledge

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann
13 min read

Meet Clay Routledge, a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. Professor Routledge studies such things as intergroup relations and how people create meaning in their lives. He has over 90 scholarly papers and has authored the book
“Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource.”

I discovered Professor Routledge on Twitter, where he tweets interesting observations about the state of orthodoxy on campus and in the broader culture. I thought it would be useful to capture some of his insights in a more in-depth form — what follows is an interview with Professor Routledge for Quillette.

Hi Clay, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Before we get into other topics, what do you research and how did you become interested in that area?

I mainly study psychological motives. And much of my work is on the meaning motive. A considerable amount of empirical research indicates that perceiving one’s life as meaningful is important for psychological, social, and physical health. People who feel meaningful are happier, more motivated, more productive, less vulnerable to mental illness, better able to cope with loss and failure, and quicker to recover from physical illness. Meaning also reduces the risk of mortality. So finding and maintaining a sense of meaning is of great value. However, life is full of experiences that threaten perceptions of meaning. In addition, as a result of our advanced cognitive capacities, humans are able to ponder existential questions and run mental simulations that can generate anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness.

My research indicates that when meaning is under threat or people are questioning it, they invest in social bonds, personal goals, or cultural beliefs to regulate existential anxiety. These compensatory responses restore a sense of meaning and overall wellbeing.

I became interested in this area during my first year of graduate school. I had just started a PhD program in psychology when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. I wondered, how could people methodically plan and execute an attack that involved them purposefully dying? Like all animals, humans are motivated to survive. But humans are also unique in that we are aware of the inevitability of death. We know that we cannot live forever. Therefore, we engage in efforts to feel like we are part of something larger and longer lasting than our finite existence. For some, this involves a religious faith, and often one that promises some form of life after death. Even beyond religion, people seek enduring meaning. This could mean trying to create a lasting work of art or cultural contribution, make an important scientific contribution, or raise children in order to preserve your family line and name. Most of the time, our efforts to find enduring meaning do not contradict our efforts to stay alive. But suicide terrorism and other extreme examples reveal that on occasion people’s motive to survive and motive to have transcendent meaning can conflict and cause great harm to the self and others. Like I said, I had just started a PhD program in psychology so I decided to focus my interest on psychological motives as well as ideology, intergroup relations, and social conflict.

You recently tweeted —

Would you be able to expand on this idea a little?

Every survey reveals that Americans, and Westerners more broadly, are becoming less religious. Religious identification, church membership, and rated importance of religion are all on the decline. Some assume that this means people are becoming more rational and empirical, but there is little evidence to support this view. For one, even as religious belief and identification are decreasing, non-traditional supernatural, spiritual, and paranormal interests and beliefs are increasing. So are beliefs in conspiracy theories and alternative medical practices that are not supported by scientific evidence. Fewer people are going to church, but more people believe in ghosts, that they can make contact with the dead, that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs, that there is spiritual energy beyond the realm of science, and so on. This is not just the case in the U.S. It has also been observed in Europe. But why? Why would people who abandon the religion of their parents turn to other spiritual and magical practices and beliefs?

My research has explored two possibilities. First, religious faith and spirituality are driven, in part, by stable cognitive and personality differences. For instance, research related to the concept of Theory of Mind (ToM) shows that people who are more inclined to imagine the feelings and intentions of others (often referred to as empathizing) are also more likely to be spiritual and religious. This suggests that part of religious belief is related to social cognitive processes, specifically, the extent to which people can – and desire to – imagine the mental lives of others. Individual differences in thinking style also matter. Specifically, people differ in their tendency to rely on intuitive versus rational thinking. Some people like to trust their gut feelings. Others do not. People who score higher on trait intuitive thinking tend to be more religious. Importantly, these are stable traits. Thus, if someone who is naturally cognitively inclined to be a spiritual person turns away from a religious faith for whatever reason, they are likely to turn to some other spiritual practice or belief.

This also helps explain gender differences in spirituality and religiosity. On nearly every measure, women score higher on spirituality and religiosity than men. Women also score higher on ToM empathizing and trait intuitive thinking than men. So, on average, women may be more cognitively inclined to be spiritual. In fact, not only are women more religious and actively involved in church, they are the primary consumers of alternative or non-traditional spiritual products and media. It is important to note that these gender differences are often small. There are certainly women who are not religious at all and men who are very religious. And there are social and cultural factors that also influence religiosity. However, these cognitive differences help explain why the majority of atheists are men and why women generally seem to be more interested in spirituality.

The second reason why the trend of Americans becoming less religious does not truly represent a move away from religious-like thinking gets us back to the meaning motive. Religion and spirituality are powerful sources of meaning for many people. As a result of changing social views and lifestyles, many people, especially young people, are leaving the traditional church. However, many of them appear to be turning to other religious-like interests and beliefs to seek meaning.

For example, in a recent series of studies conducted in my lab, we observed that the established inverse association between religiosity and belief in extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI; e.g., aliens, UFOs) is partially accounted for by the desire to find meaning. That is, atheists, agnostics, and those who do not identify as religious are more likely than highly religious people to hold paranormal ETI beliefs such as intelligent alien beings are monitoring the lives of humans and that the government is covering-up evidence of their existence. We found that this is because these non-religious folks are more likely to perceive life as meaningless and thus more likely to be actively searching for meaning. ETI beliefs help people feel like humans are not alone in the universe and that perhaps there are godlike beings watching over us.

Michael Shermer summed it up best when he wrote, “ETIs are secular gods – deities for atheists.” Of course, many atheists and skeptics do not hold these beliefs, but our research reveals that just because people do not endorse traditional religious beliefs does not mean they do not have active “religious” minds, particularly when they are searching for meaning. This is just one example. Clearly though, people, especially those who are cognitively inclined to be spiritual, will gravitate to a range of supernatural, paranormal, and spiritual beliefs and interests when grappling with questions and insecurities about meaning in life.

My research in this area also makes another important point. People, particularly nonreligious people, often view themselves as rational and religious people as irrational. But the truth is more complicated. All people rely at least some of the time on intuition and some of the time on rational thinking. Further, people often employ different styles of thinking in different domains of life. When we listen to music, enjoy nature, or feel love, we might be more inclined to turn to intuition, to just enjoy the experience. When we are trying to make an important financial decision, we might be more inclined to engage effortful rational thinking.

This explains why there are, in fact, many scientists who are religious. They engage more rational processes to do their scientific work but feel comfortable embracing more intuitive thinking to explore spiritual questions. In addition, in our research we find that meaning tends to be found using intuitive cognitive processes. In other words, when people are seeking meaning they tend to rely on feelings. They trust their guts. This is one reason why people often turn to beliefs that are not empirically based when they are seeking meaning. Consider Christianity. People don’t say Jesus is in their heads. They say Jesus is in their hearts. Faith is a feeling.  

If you can, tell us more about what the psychology of inter-group relations means for Identity Politics… And considering the state of hyper-polarisation today in the US and elsewhere, what are some important findings to keep in mind from psychology, that might help shed some light on all of this instability?

Identity politics, especially what is going on within the academic left, is strange because it is at odds with much of what we know about intergroup relations. Decades ago, psychological scientists established that dividing people into groups and highlighting group differences leads to in-group bias. It also leads to hostility if the groups perceive themselves as fighting over scarce resources. It is human nature to defend one’s in-group and to be suspicious of and hesitant to trust out-groups. Identity politics makes relations between groups worse because it constantly reminds people of their group identity and what distinguishes them from members of other groups. Experimental research also shows that making people feel like victims, which is common in identity politics and on college campuses, increases feelings of entitlement and reduces prosocial behavior.

Feelings of victimhood are also contagious. This is called competitive victimhood. Research shows that when one group is accused of victimizing another group, it causes members of the supposed victimizing group to perceive their own group as victims. Therefore, a lot of identity politics activism is causing harm to intergroup relations. The key to helping members of disadvantaged groups and improving intergroup relations more generally is to focus on what unites people, not what divides them. We often call this a common in-group identity or a superordinate group identity.

For instance, in the U.S., it is better to highlight that we are all Americans instead of constantly thinking about all the different group memberships we hold. This doesn’t mean we ignore historical or present-day discrimination. We should recognize and stand against discrimination, but the goal should be to advocate for equality because we all share a common humanity, and should thus all be treated with the same dignity and have the same rights. Identity politics is divisive. It encourages feelings of victimhood, a lack of personal control or agency, and distrust of and anger towards different others. The postmodern fields that promote identity politics ignore decades of good research on both what creates conflict and the best ways to reduce it.

Let’s turn to another topic, post-modernism. Do you think that critical theory or postmodernism will ever go away? There have been attempts to discredit postmodernism before (e.g. the Sokal Affair) but nothing seems to work. What should empirically minded academics do to counter the effects of these ideas?

I am not sure it will ever go away. The basic idea has been around in different forms for a long time. Plus, part of the appeal of this kind of scholarship is that it approaches an important point. It just makes a dramatic turn in the wrong direction before it gets there. The important point is that people are biased and this influences scientific work. I and others have written about the problem of ideological bias in the empirical sciences. However, postmodernists horribly misdiagnose the problem. Science isn’t the problem. People are the problem. Scientists are people, so they can be biased. And this undercuts our ability to develop an objective understanding of the world. This means we need to increase our efforts to remove human bias. Postmodernists oddly go the opposite direction. They increase potential bias by rejecting the methods that help reduce bias. They put their faith, and I use the term faith purposely, in subjective human experiences instead of trying to remove subjectivity from research.

If gender scholars, for example, really believe that science is contaminated by a system of patriarchal and colonialist oppression then they should demand more rigor in science, not less. They should fight for increased efforts to remove human bias through more careful research design, instrument development, and data-collection procedures. They should be big fans of predictive research, hypothesis testing, inferential statistics, and replication attempts from independent labs. They should champion all efforts to suppress the extent to which humans can contaminate science with their personal biases and motives.

Instead, they reject empirical methods. They publish autoethnographies which represent the definition of bias because they perfectly confound a research topic with the person writing about it. They conduct qualitative studies utilizing very small samples and procedures that allow all sorts of human contamination. While empirical social scientists are trying to improve our fields by increasing sample sizes, diversifying samples, reporting our methods and procedures in more detail, demanding more statistical reporting, conducting replication studies and meta-analyses, postmodernists are publishing papers involving anecdotal accounts of life experiences. How is that going to tell us anything objective about the world?

I previously discussed the religious mind in terms of cognitive traits. A lot of the postmodern fields have characteristics that are very similar to religion. They are non-empirical. They prioritize subjective feelings (intuition). They also have a religious fundamentalism quality. That is, they are not friendly to those who challenge postmodern orthodoxy, inject morality into their work, ostracize or punish dissenters, and treat certain views as inherently true and sacred. Social science should be based on empirical evidence. It should be distinct from religion. Many postmodernists are blurring the line, in my opinion.

What can empirically minded academics do? They should quit looking the other way and giving their postmodern colleagues a free pass. Most empirical social scientists are on the political left so I think they are often forgiving of their postmodern colleagues because they see them as ideological allies. And many of them are friends because they work together. But academia shouldn’t be treated like a social club or political organization. We should be seeking truth, not protecting or defending our own ideological perspectives or our friends’ feelings.

You’re outspoken about left-leaning bias on campus and even in psychology. Why do you think that it is important to draw attention to this issue? And have you suffered any blowback at all for talking about it?

As I previously noted, ideological bias can influence research and most academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are on the political left. This leads to groupthink and reduces the amount of scrutiny certain research receives and the debate it inspires. And it can bias every step of the research process. It can influence the choice of research questions, the way scales or questionnaires are worded, the specific outcomes measured, the decision to publish or not publish results, the amount of criticism the research receives in the peer-review process, the topics of selected research symposia at conferences, what projects receive grant funding, and so on.

Viewpoint diversity helps because we rely on peers to challenge us, to debate our ideas and point out the biases and flaws in our research. In research that does not touch on social or political issues, we often see considerable debate, people offering alternative hypotheses or questioning particulars of the research design and statistical tests. This always improves the quality of the work and helps us get closer to the objective truth. But people seem to go a little or a lot easier on research that touches on sensitive social or political topics, or supports leftist ideology. I have seen this firsthand. I have been at talks where people present very poorly conducted research related to ideas that failed to replicate or were never well-supported to begin with and watched as hardly anyone in the audience offered even the slightest challenge. It is very strange to see well-trained scientists so blatantly ignore fundamental research flaws because they find the conclusion ideologically affirming. This is precisely why we need to make our methods more rigorous, fight for an academic culture that challenges groupthink and prioritizes the pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty, and encourage diversity of thought.

As for blowback, I have received a little, such as the usual white-male privilege accusation. This stuff is right out of the intersectionality playbook. But it is not a rational argument nor does it really bother me. I have done a lot of research related to psychological motives that influence ideology and intergroup processes. I care deeply about combating prejudice and helping people from disadvantaged groups succeed. I just prefer to base my efforts on actual evidence, not partisan politics or unsubstantiated postmodern theories. I am not that worried about the blowback. I am a successful tenured professor and I did not get in this game to win a popularity contest. 

I often think that political correctness just makes moderates and centrists quieter, while making conservatives and authoritarians more outspoken in opposition. Do you think there’s some truth to this? And if so, how do we counter this trend?

Yes. I sometimes get emails or calls from faculty all over the country thanking me for speaking out against leftist bias. They don’t want to publicly say anything because maybe they aren’t tenured or care more about social repercussions than I do. They just want to quietly thank me. Perhaps promoting viewpoint diversity could help. Also, those of us who are willing to speak up should do so because that encourages others to chime in. I also think we need to push back hard against this idea on the left that disagreement equals prejudice or hate. Calling someone a sexist, racist, etc. for simply challenging your view is intellectually dishonest and lazy. It also harms real efforts to fight injustice because it renders these labels, which should be powerful, meaningless. We need to call that behavior out, even if it makes us unpopular.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights and chatting to Quillette. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or add?

I would add that people on the left should be concerned about the future of their movement. When I look at young people, especially college students, I see leftist students buying into identity politics and victimhood culture. It is an arms race to feel the most victimized. I see a lot of cynicism and negativity, and a lot of efforts to suppress freedom of speech. But young conservative and libertarian groups seem to be more positive and agentic. They seem to be more focused on expanding their movement and listening to different ideas. I am sure the differences are more nuanced than this but what I am seeing often looks like the difference between the Oppression Olympics on the left and the Opportunity Olympics on the right.

Like I said before though, victimhood culture is contagious so my concern is that students on the right will also start going down this path. All students need to resist being seduced by victimhood culture. We need our universities to be places of energetic discussion and debate, not a fight to see who can be the most outraged.

And students, don’t tell people to check their privilege. Think of all the ways you are privileged. You get to pursue a university degree, something most of the world does not have access to. Consider the fact you are alive a great privilege. After all, none of us lives forever. Don’t be afraid of words or ideas. How are you going to make a difference in the world if you can’t fully engage it? And remember, political identity does not make someone a good or bad person. Good people can disagree. The world would be a boring and not particularly innovative place if we all thought the same way on every issue.


To discover more about Professor Routledge, find his scholarly papers here, and his website here. He tweets @clayroutledge.


Claire Lehmann is the editor of Quillette. You can email her at claire@quillette.com or follow her on Twitter @clairlemon.

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Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.