How selective perception affects the campus free speech debate

June 7, 2018

Author Cynthia Meyersburg is a psychology research fellow with FIRE’s ongoing Speech, Outreach, Advocacy, and Research (SOAR) project. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University.

Last month, I blogged about Wendy J. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s Inside Higher Ed article, “Psychology and Free Speech.” Today, I am discussing another article by the same authors, this time in Perspectives of Psychological Science, entitled “Who Decides What Is Acceptable Speech on Campus?  Why Restricting Free Speech is Not the Answer.”

In this article, Ceci and Williams address protests against controversial talks on college campuses. They contend that “[p]sychological science provides an important lens through which to view, understand, and potentially reduce these conflicts,” and identify several psychological mechanisms which lead to biased judgment or biased decision-making in such a way that may contribute to campus conflict regarding controversial speakers.

For the purposes of their article, Ceci and Williams narrow their focus, using the March 2017 protest and shutdown of a speech by Charles Murray that occurred at Middlebury College as the basis for their research on how one psychological mechanism, called selective perception, impacts what is deemed to be acceptable speech on campus. They make a compelling case.

Selective perception refers to the phenomenon of two or more people witnessing the same event, yet, due to their preexisting preferences or beliefs, having very different perceptions of what transpired. Ceci and Williams explain selective perception by walking readers through a classic 1950s psychology experiment. The researchers, Albert H. Hastorf, then a professor of psychology at Dartmouth (later a professor and dean at Stanford,) and Hadley Cantril, a psychology professor at Princeton, used films of a highly controversial 1951 Princeton-Dartmouth football game to examine student perceptions of events. Watching a film of the game, students from Dartmouth reported that both their team and Princeton’s team made a similar number of infractions, yet when Princeton students watched the film, they reported that Dartmouth made over twice as many infractions as their own team. (For a more detailed explanation of the Hastorf and Cantril study, watch for my next blog post.) It was as if the students were watching different football games.

Ceci and Williams had the intriguing idea to conduct a study building on Hastorf and Cantril’s selective perception study using a transcription of the relatively brief (approximately 14 minutes long) portion of Charles Murray’s aborted Middlebury address that was live-streamed.  

Charles Murray is a libertarian political scientist and emeritus scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. He is well-known for one of his earlier books, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” (1994), in which he and his co-author, Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein, made highly controversial claims about intelligence and race. Many scholars and journalists have sharply criticized Herrnstein and Murray’s book as being racist and lacking scientific merit. Indeed, based primarily on “The Bell Curve,” the Southern Poverty Law Center considers Murray to be a white nationalist. For his part, Murray denies being racist or a white nationalist. Earlier this year, during an interview for National Public Radio, journalist Michel Martin spoke with Murray about his career: “There is an intellectual wing, if I can call it that, of the alt-right that does rely on tropes of racial difference tied to what they claim are intellectual differences. And I wonder if you think you may have contributed to that unwittingly and how you feel about that?” To which Murray responded: “If I contributed to it, it’s not because of anything that Dick Herrnstein and I wrote. It’s because of what people want to say we wrote.”

While at a now infamous speaking engagement at Middlebury College to discuss his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, Murray received such loud, sustained disruption that his talk could not continue in the auditorium and was moved to a classroom. The talk continued there, despite a fire alarm pulled by protesters, and as he was leaving the building with Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, he was surrounded by protesters. As Murray and Stanger attempted to leave in a car, Stanger was injured by protesters who also attacked the car as they tried to escape. (If you are interested in Stanger’s perspective on the incident at Middlebury, then you may want to read her testimony to the U.S. Senate.)

Students should be able to protest a campus speaker. But student protesters do not have the right to engage in sustained protesting conducted in such a way that others cannot hear what the invited speaker has to say. As Ceci and Williams explain,“Not every opinion is underpinned by equally rigorous science, but no group should have the audacity to claim that it alone possesses the valid view and that all who disagree with it are wrong.” Guest speakers play an important role in the intellectual life on campuses. FIRE’s own poll of a representative sample of 1,250 U.S. undergraduates found that 93% of students endorse having their school invite a variety of speakers to campus, and that 64% of students state that they have at least once changed an attitude or opinion about an issue after hearing a guest speaker.

Ceci and Williams correctly note that, according to the United States Supreme Court, the mere presence of hateful content is not sufficient reason to ban speech. However, Ceci and Williams go on to note that they did not consider the content of Murray’s speech to have been hateful. Rather, they thought it sounded like centrist political commentary.

Ceci and Williams decided to investigate two research questions: First, did knowing who gave the speech significantly impact how conservative or liberal the listener perceived the speech’s content to be? Second, was the content of Murray’s speech actually middle of the road, or was it in some way extreme? In order to answer these questions, Ceci and Williams asked a convenience sample of college and university faculty to rate the excerpted speech on a scale of 1 (strongly liberal) to 9 (strongly conservative):

We sent this transcript to 68 faculty members in the United States and Canada. We did not tell these faculty that the transcription was a talk by Murray nor that it was connected to the disturbance at Middlebury College… Fifty-seven of the 68 faculty members responded (plus two spouses, one of whom we included because she is also a professor). Their median rating of Murray’s talk was 5 (mean = 5.02, SD = 1.34). The most liberal rating was 2.5, and the most conservative rating was 8; of the 58 faculty ratings, 37 were between 4 and 6, or middle of the road. Thus, faculty in this convenience sample did not view Murray’s comments as dangerously conservative, and none of their written comments suggested anything remotely oriented toward hate speech… We also asked another group of 68 faculty to do the same rating, with one difference: We told them the text was from a speech by Charles Murray. This information made a statistical difference. The 44 who responded knowing it was written by Murray rated it as more conservative than did their blinded counterparts (M = 5.74, SD = 1.21), two-tailed t(96) = 2.74, p = .007. However, even this group’s mean was close to middle of the road. In sum, neither faculty group saw anything about Murray’s talk that deserved to be banned.

Ceci and Williams also asked non-faculty participants to evaluate how conservative Murray’s talk was:  

In light of social psychologists’ liberal tendency, it was of interest to determine how a nonacademic sample would view Murray’s talk. Would they share the faculty belief that it was middle-of-the-road? To find out, we paid 200 Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (mean age = 32 years) to do the rating. They rated their own political orientation on the 9-point scale, and the mean was 4.22, slightly to the liberal side of the scale. To insure they carefully read the transcript of Murray’s talk, we included two factual questions related to the talk at the end of the MTurk survey that they had to answer correctly. Their mean rating of the Murray text was 5.22 (SD 1.17), which is squarely centrist. Thus, all three groups of adults rated the Murray talk as centrist, ranging from 5.02 to 5.74 on a 9-point scale.

Thus, Ceci and Williams found that according to each of the three groups of participants who evaluated the content of Murray’s aborted Middlebury speech transcript, the content of the speech was seen as moderate-centrist. Consistent with a selective perception bias, the group of faculty who knew Murray was the author did rate the content of his speech as being significantly more conservative than did the group of faculty who did not know who the author was, although the group difference was small, and both faculty groups ultimately rated the content of Murray’s talk as moderate.

Ceci and Williams carefully note the limitations to their findings, acknowledging that their faculty sample was a convenience sample. But even considering the limitations, their findings are compelling. (Williams and Ceci previously discussed some of these findings in an article they wrote for the New York Times in 2017. If you follow FIRE’s Newsdesk regularly, you may have read a post about their New York Times article.) It would be interesting if Ceci and Williams (or other psychological scientists) were to conduct a similar study with undergraduate participants. Would student participants consider the content to be moderate-centrist? Would students rate the content as less or more conservative depending on whether or not they were aware that the author is Murray?

Ceci and Williams’ selective perception study of faculty and general public perceptions of the political tenor of Murray’s aborted Middlebury speech is an important contribution to the corpus of research needed in order to understand the tumult regarding controversial speakers on college campuses. Ceci and Williams opine that “Campus policies should make clear that our discomfort with an argument does not itself constitute violence against historically marginalized groups. This should be conveyed to entering students in the same way as policies regarding other important issues (e.g., alcohol, sexual violence, plagiarism). College experience is not designed to keep us within our personal comfort zone nor to immunize our beliefs from disconfirmation.”

Ultimately, as Ceci and Williams foresee, such research may lead to information and insights that could aid in the development of empirically-supported strategies to increase tolerance, both on the right and the left, for encountering opinions with which one disagrees.