You Can't Tell a Conservative Without a Score Card.--

I have written a draft op-ed analyzing Jack and Jeanne Block's study of the correlation between the political orientation of young adults and evaluations of them made by their nursery school teachers about 20 years earlier. I have two copies of the study itself, one downloaded from the journal's website and an earlier draft kindly sent me by Jack Block. But I didn't ask Block's permission to put up a copy here, so if you want a copy, you may get one from Michelle Malkin's website. Until I figure out where to place my op-ed (or whether I even have the time to do more than a cursory job of shopping it around), I will post here only some of my observations.

Do whiny, deviant, insecure nursery school kids grow up to be conservatives? And do fluent, resourceful, self-reliant pre-schoolers grow up to be liberals? The answer to both questions would appear to be "Yes" according to a new study to appear in the Journal of Research in Personality. Its authors are the eminent psychologist Jack Block, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and his deceased wife and colleague, Jeanne Block.

The study claims that those who were relatively conservative at age 23 were originally evaluated by their nursery school teachers as uncertain, guilty, and rigid. The supposedly conservative boys "were especially viewed as deviant from their peers and sensitive to being different." As youngsters, the conservative girls "tended toward indecisiveness, were easy butts of peers, and were quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful." On the other hand, the kids who later became relatively liberal were viewed by their teachers mostly in positive terms, such as "resourceful, autonomous, expressive, and self-reliant."

So far, public responses to the Block study have been mixed.

The Toronto Star, which broke the story in the press, gave the study respectful coverage, but also included the derogative comments of Arizona State psychologist Jeff Greenberg: "I found it to be biased, shoddy work, poor science at best." But the only criticism attributed to Greenberg and mentioned in the story is less than compelling: "He thinks insecure, defensive, rigid people can as easily gravitate to left-wing ideologies as right-wing ones. He suspects that in Communist China, those kinds of people would likely become fervid party members."

Yet assessing conservatism and liberalism in Communist countries is not terribly meaningful because Communist dictatorships are usually considered left-wing by those on the right, and right-wing by those on the left. Even if the Blocks' results were not generalizable to countries like China, that would mostly affect the domain over which their results would apply, not their validity in the United States. So Greenberg's criticism does not go to the heart of the Blocks' thesis.

Responses from bloggers to the Block study have ranged from generally accepting on liberal sites to skeptical or dismissive on most libertarian or conservative sites. Some insightfully mentioned that the new Block nursery school study reminded them of the May, 2003 article in the Psychological Bulletin by a group headed by Professor John T. Jost that reviewed and analyzed data on conservatism. The Jost study also found conservatives to be rigid, fearful, and lacking in intellectual complexity.

Just from what is in the Blocks' article, there is scant reason to think that those whom Block calls "conservatives" are really conservatives, rather than Democrats or political moderates. Those whom the Blocks think of as relatively "conservative" on many of their measures of conservatism are expressing views that would mark them as Democrats or political moderates (not conservatives) in the general public. The study itself acknowledges that the most conservative third or half of their 95 subjects from Berkeley and Oakland were not really conservatives, admitting that there were "relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism."

That the new Berkeley study has severely mismeasured conservatives and liberals is shown by several odd findings, including the strong relationship they claim between their liberal-conservative scale and their subjects' IQs. The Blocks report a correlation between IQ and their conservatism-liberalism scores of .36 for males and .24 for girls. Just for comparison, in the 1996-2004 General Social Surveys the correlation between political party identification (as a Republican, Independent, or Democrat on a 7-point scale) and political orientation (as a conservative, moderate, or liberal on a 7- point scale) is only about .30. And the correlation between a man or woman being a conservative and opposing abortion is only about .17-.25. So if the Blocks' measure of conservatism were to be generalizable to the general public, then a low IQ would have to be a generally better predictor of whether a man is a conservative than whether he was a Republican or whether he opposes abortion—which is highly implausible.

What the Block study really shows is that kids who grow up to have low IQs struggled even in nursery school, while kids who grow up to have high IQs did well even as youngsters. Since in the general public (as shown by General Social Surveys and American National Election Studies), adult conservatives are consistently better educated than the average citizen and (as shown in the GSS) do better on IQ-style vocabulary and reasoning tests, the results of the Block study are generally inapplicable to typical political conservatives, liberals, and moderates in the United States.

With the thousands of studies that have been done on conservatives using representative samples of the general public over the last five decades, we actually know quite a bit about them. It is time for researchers and the editors of scholarly journals to use a little common sense and ordinary skepticism when looking at statistical relationships that are so farfetched that they are almost certainly wrong. And when they encounter such a relationship, they should take the next step and try to determine where the study went awry.

Sadly, of course, many of the questions that the Blocks used to mismeasure political orientation have been widely used by other researchers in social and political psychology—despite the tendency of self-identified conservatives in the general public to be more likely than nonconservatives to give supposedly "liberal," tolerant answers to many of these sorts of questions. Researchers often admit that some of the most widely used indices and scales were developed by first writing down sets of (mostly negative) stereotypes of conservatives. The last prominent study of conservatives that had similar measurement problems was a 2003 Psychological Bulletin article by a group of academics led by Professor John T. Jost (now of NYU). Andrea Irvin, a student at Berkeley, offered an amusing, if somewhat unfair assessment of the Jost study: it was "about as scientific as phrenology."

UPDATE: I updated this post in a new one.

Update on the Berkeley Nursery School Study.--

[See the two UPDATES below and a newer post for information on which nursery schools were studied. These resolve some of the ambiguities discussed in this post, which I have left unedited except for the UPDATES below.]

In a long earlier post, I pointed out some problems with the Berkeley nursery school study. The more I read, the more persuaded I am that the study didn't distinguish liberals from conservatives, but rather liberals from moderates. We have to take seriously the study's admission that there were "relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism." Indeed, many of the characteristics that were attributed to the relatively conservative subjects in the study generally fit nonliberal Democrats better: e.g., the subjects were described as distrustful, worrying, anxious, and fearful, with lower intellectual capacity (and lower IQ scores), lower verbal fluency, and lower confidence. From the data and the measures used, the study probably is mostly separating liberal Democrats from nonliberal Democrats.

Support for this idea may come indirectly from a post by Michelle Malkin, who reports that it is almost certain that the nursery school that was used in the study was one run by the Berkeley Child Study Center, a school that appears to be restricted to children of Berkeley faculty and staff.

But the Block nursery school study reports:

Subjects initially (about 1969-71) were attending two different nursery schools and resided primarily in the urban areas of Berkeley and Oakland, California; they were heterogeneous with respect to social class and parents' educational level.

Perhaps I was naive, but I had assumed from this sentence in the article that two completely "different" schools were involved, perhaps one in Berkeley and one in Oakland. Now I see that in another section of the paper, the Blocks wrote:

Each child at age three was assessed by three experienced, independently functioning nursery school teachers each of whom had seen the child daily for seven months before offering their separate, well-versed evaluations. At age 4, and when in a second nursery school for seven months, each child was independently assessed again by an entirely different set of three experienced nursery school teachers functioning independently. The nursery school teachers had been selected by the nursery school head and tended to be graduate students from the University of California School of Education.

So on closer reading it appears that all of the students went from the first school to the second, which suggests (but does not establish) that both schools were part of the same organization, apparently (from Malkin's post) Berkeley's Child Study Center--which brings me to another point.

I quote the Blocks above as writing about the backgrounds of the students: "they were heterogeneous with respect to social class and parents' educational level." I don't know whether Malkin is correct that all the students at the Berkeley school were children of Berkeley staff and faculty. If they were, then the heterogeneity statement in the Blocks' statement may be highly misleading, though perhaps not literally untrue.

In the 1972 General Social Survey, only 3% of the general public had post-graduate or professional degrees. I find it hard to believe that a nursery school open only to Berkeley faculty and staff would be at all representative of the general public. (Judging from the University of Chicago's Laboratory School, whose towers I am gazing at this moment and whose classes my daughter attended from nursery school through high school, the students there were largely from families with one or more post-graduate degrees.) If the nursery school where data was collected was made up almost entirely of university kids (and I know nothing about this other than Malkin's post), then the Blocks should have informed readers how skewed in terms of education and social class the sample was. They should not have pointed readers in the opposite direction by calling the sample "heterogeneous with respect to social class and parents' educational level."

Last, if the data were collected in what was in effect one nursery school open only to the children of Berkeley faculty and staff, a liberal group if ever there was one, then it tends to support my earlier hypothesis that the sample may have so few conservatives or Republicans that the study mostly distinguishes the political left from the political center--i.e., it distinguishes the 40% of Democrats in the general public who are liberal from the other 60% of Democrats who are not.

FURTHER UPDATE: In the comments, Chris of MM pointed me to two earlier pieces by the Blocks that might have detailed information on the social class and educational backgrounds of the parents of the nursery school students. Unfortunately, they don't, but one of them confirms which nursery schools were studied and gives some additional information on the larger sample (before at least some of the attrition over time):

The children in our study were drawn from the two nursery schools constituting the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center at Berkeley . . . . One of the participating nursery schools is a university laboratory school, administered by the University of California; the second nursery school is a parent cooperative, administered by the Berkeley Public Schools. The two schools, jointly considered, attract children from heterogeneous backgrounds with regard to education, socioeconomic level, and ethnic origin. Although the sample over-represents the middle and upper-middle class, the range of socioeconomic status (SES) is wide. Sixty-one percent of the children are white, 31% are black, and the remaining 8% represent other ethnic groups, primarily Oriental and Chicano.

J.H. Block & J. Block, The role of ego-control and ego-resiliency in the organization of behavior, in W. A. Collins (Ed.), 13 The Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology 39, at 52 [1980].

This passage confirms that the students attended schools that comprise the Berkeley Child Study Center, but makes it even less clear than it was before which parents were allowed to send students there. Would the Berkeley Public Schools run a nursery school open only to university faculty and staff children? That seems unlikely.

FURTHER, FURTHER UPDATE (Sunday, 3/26): Block responded to Malkin by email and clarified which parents were allowed to send students to the two schools, a discussion I examine here. As I speculated in the FURTHER UPDATE in the preceding paragraph, one of the two nursery schools that made up the Berkeley Child Study Center was open to the community. Indeed, Block says that university kids were barred from it.

The Comment period expired on this post (and they are impossible to turn on again), so if you want to continue commenting on either of the first two posts on this topic, you may do so at the latest post.

Nursery School Revisited: Does the Representativeness of a Sample Matter?

I have now read three pieces to come out of the Block & Block Berkeley longitudinal study besides the one on political orientation, and I am generally very impressed both with the thoroughness and the quality of the work. They did a staggering amount of work and collected a wealth of data.

A. Is the sample representative?

I, nonetheless, think there are still sampling and measurement problems with the political orientation study. In that study Block admits that the sample is not representative on the main outcome variable—conservatism/liberalism—but he disagrees that this is a problem.

The debate continues at Michelle Malkin's site, where she excerpts part of an email sent by Jack Block. Block informs Malkin that one of the two nursery schools was indeed open to faculty & staff, but in the other, faculty & staff children were excluded. Presumably, this was school that the Blocks in 1980 described as a "parent cooperative," which was part of the UC-Berkeley Child Study Center, though it was administered by the Berkeley Public Schools. One might reasonably wonder about the political makeup of two schools, both part of the university's Child Study Center, one open to UC-Berkeley faculty & staff children, the other a "parent cooperative" in Berkeley, California.

Given that the question of the representativeness of the sample has arisen and that Block has admitted in the new article that the sample had "relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism," it would be good for Block to point people to any paper that gives the demographic breakdown of the education and SES of the parents. Chris from MixedMemory (who has written the best blog post I've read in support of the nursery school study), has suggested to me that he seems to recall that such SES information is in one of the studies to come out of the project. If not, perhaps Block can release that information on the parents of the 95 children.

Ultimately, it would be more important to know:

1. How many of the 95 subjects self-identified as conservatives, moderates, or liberals?

2. How many of the 95 subjects self-identified as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents, if that question was asked?

3. What was the party ID and political orientation of their parents in 1969-71, if that is known? (As part of the thoroughness with which the study was done, parents were studied in 1969-71 as well as children).

B. Does representativeness matter?

Block also makes this following dismissive argument in his email on Malkin's site:

More important, the analyses were within the sample. Logically, the Malkin analysis therefore is fundamentally irrelevant and inapplicable. I suppose one cannot expect hasty and untrained reporters to be familiar with the logic of research.

Here Jack Block goes too far. Only if the relationships that he is examining are straight line linear AND he has good measures of who is or is not conservative or liberal would it not matter whether the sample was representative.

I remember once suggesting something like Jack Block's argument to Norman Bradburn, a psychologist specializing in questionnaire framing and the former provost of the U. of Chicago and research director of the Natl. Opinion Research Center. I said that, as long as I was measuring some basic psychological process, it was not too important whether the sample was representative. Bradburn archly replied that, of course, representativeness did not matter, so long as I wasn't planning to generalize my results to try to shed light on what people outside my survey were like. I got Bradburn's point.

If there are really very few conservatives in the Blocks' sample (as he admits), then it wouldn't make sense to describe what conservatives think or even what the relatively conservative think. It would be better to describe the results as reflecting what liberals and moderates think, or to contrast what the "relatively liberal" and "relatively moderate" think.

Further, on some of the issues used to try to separate liberals from conservatives, it appears that moderates (not conservatives) would score at one extreme and liberals at the other, so it would matter very much to the results if the sample was substantially skewed to the right or substantially skewed to the left. When the relationships between two variables are U-shaped, it is important to have representative samples from all parts of the spectrum or it is possible to get major relationships backwards.

In short, representativeness does matter.

UPDATE: In the comments below, the question is raised whether the Blocks intended their results to be generalizable to the general public. Their nursery school article interestingly suggests that they put at least some stock in the representativeness of the sample and its possible application beyond its unique setting:

This configuration of personality characteristics, although methodologically based on quite different procedures, is especially reminiscent of earlier speculations by Fromm (1941), the Berkeley studies of the authoritarian personality (Adorno et al., 1950), Rokeach (1960), and Altemeyer (1981), among others. Providing additional conceptual and informational support for the present findings, is the attractive recent review by Jost et al. (2003b). The congruence between our findings regarding adult conservatives and prior empirically-based understandings attests to the general representativeness of the present sample as adults and, therefore, the likely veridicality of the unique nursery school results.

(By the way, "veridical" is defined as "1. Truthful; veracious . . . 2. Coinciding with future events or apparently unknowable present realities.")

Note that in this part of their article the Blocks do view their sample of adults as representative of the larger sample of adults in society. As for the relevance of having a representative sample, here the Blocks do not consider representativeness "fundamentally irrelevant and inapplicable," as Block does in his email quoted above on Malkin's site.

Although the Blocks think that the "representativeness of the present sample as adults" is important enough to mention because it leads to the likely "veridicality" of their observations of nursery school students, it is not entirely clear what they mean by "veridicality" in this context. They could (and probably do) mean that their results are likely to be generalizable to other observations of nursery school kids in other eras and places, or they could mean something less. In any event, they don't consider "representativeness" "irrelevant and inapplicable."

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Nursery School Revisited: Does the Representativeness of a Sample Matter?
  2. Update on the Berkeley Nursery School Study.--
  3. You Can't Tell a Conservative Without a Score Card.--