Clay Routledge is interested in how and why humans search for meaning and motivation. A professor of psychology at North Dakota State with over 90 academic articles to his name and the author of an upcoming book on how supernatural and quasi-religious curiosities and beliefs are driven — in part, by the need for meaning — I thought Dr. Routledge (@ClayRoutledge) would have some fascinating thoughts on what motivates ideologues and groupthink. His upcoming book on these matters, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World , is set to be published by Oxford University press at a later date. The following is our conversation on human motivation, bias, and viewpoint heterogeneity
Malhar Mali: Before we start, can you tell us a little about your area of research, what fascinates you, etc?
Clay Routledge: What truly fascinates me is the uniquely human ability to ask existential questions about death and meaning and how people grapple with these questions. Humans are highly self-aware, temporally conscious, and abstract-thinking animals. Our intellectual prowess has given us great power over the natural world. And yet, we are physically fragile organisms destined to the same mortal fate as the bugs we squash without a second thought. Science and technology have helped us live longer and more comfortable lives but death stalks us nonetheless. All the broccoli, green tea, and yoga in the world can’t stop the inevitability of our demise. Not to mention the fact that our physical fragility leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of hazards that are difficult to predict and control. A young, healthy, and athletic man in my community was killed on a bicycle ride by a distracted driver. He had a family who loved him, a good job, and was doing everything right to be healthy and a contributing member of the community. And just like that, because someone wanted to check her phone, he is gone forever. We all know this is the game. We do our best to dodge danger, but we all are eventually annihilated, which isn’t a particularly uplifting thought. But as self-conscious and intelligent animals, this knowledge that we are fragile, transient, and, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant is our cross to bear.
So what do humans do in response to this knowledge and other existential insecurities and curiosities? We seek transcendent meaning. We look to religion for guidance about the purpose of life and the possibility of death-transcendence. We seek the security and comfort of close social bonds, which are already important for our survival. We pursue genetic continuity by having children. We attach ourselves to social and cultural structures that make us feel like we are part of something larger and longer lasting than our brief mortal lives. We make personal contributions to science, technology, the arts, and civic life. These efforts help us survive and thrive, but they also make us feel meaningful. We hope to not be forgotten, to live on in the memories of others. Our lives may be brief, but we want them to matter. And when people feel like they don’t matter, they often experience distress and despair. Some engage in behaviors that may feel good and reduce self-awareness (e.g, alcohol and drug abuse) but that are ultimately maladaptive. Some seek new paths to meaning, even, ironically, dangerous ones that may put them at risk of premature death. For example, consider the suicide bomber. There are a number of variables at play, just as there are with most complex human behaviors, but the promise of meaning and immortality through martyrdom is one contributing factor.
Existential concerns and aspirations can motivate unthinkable evil acts but also beautiful and inspiring works of art, transformative technologies, life-saving medical advancements, and humanitarian efforts to make the world a better place. My research lab studies the underlying variables that make humans existential animals, beings concerned not just with survival, but also with significance. Using a variety of quantitative methods, we conduct research examining the cognitive and affective processes implicated in efforts to find, protect, and restore meaning. We also examine how the need for meaning, and other psychological motives such as the need to belong, positively and negatively impact social and intergroup relations and specific secular and religious ideologies.
MM: What are your thoughts on “campus culture”? Seen from the side of an academic, I’m sure you have a deeper understanding of the cause and inspiration of some of the behaviors we’re witnessing?
CR: I am worried about campus culture because I think parts of it are being corrupted by ideology and this ideology is getting in the way of our ability to openly and rationally explore important questions about human nature and social life. A number of very smart people have written thought pieces comparing campus culture to religion. I won’t repeat their points. However, their observations have largely been sociological in the sense that they are reporting on the group-level behaviors of activist professors, students, and administrators that appear religious-like. What I think I can add to this discussion is a more psychological dimension, which suggests that campus culture is quasi-religious. I suspect that the same cognitive and motivational variables that drive many religious beliefs are involved in this culture. Just because people no longer identify with the religion of their parents or grandparents does not mean they do not have the same underlying religious minds. These religious minds appear to be an active part of the postmodern, intersectionality campus culture.
Critically, the need for meaning does not disappear simply because people abandon religion. Secular ideologies also provide meaning. They offer structure and certainty, a way to connect and feel valued by others, and a feeling that one is part of a meaningful and enduring movement.
I conduct a lot of research on the psychology of religion, though I take an unorthodox approach to this work. I don’t typically focus on traditional religious beliefs and identifications. Instead, I seek to reveal the more basic cognitive and affective characteristics of the religious mind by examining a range of beliefs and curiosities not normally associated with religion but the share similar characteristics. I care more about the building blocks of belief than the actual beliefs. This approach has led me to hypothesize that, despite popular opinion, religiosity is not in decline. Sure, fewer people identify as religious or go to church, but we are discovering that many people who abandon one type of religious belief may turn to other spiritual, supernatural, paranormal, or quasi-religious beliefs in the quest to find meaning. I won’t get into all that here but will just say our lab is examining how the need for meaning, and the cognitive traits typically associated with religious faith, contribute to a range of spiritual and quasi-religious beliefs, even ones that on the surface appear to be entirely secular in nature. And this is one reason why I think at least some of the far-left campus activism has a quasi-religious nature. It fits the profile of being a religious surrogate.
We should be concerned about college culture being quasi-religious because the cognitive processes involved in objective and evidence-based scholarship are typically distinct from the cognitive processes involved in spiritual pursuits. And these different ways of thinking show we hold scientific and spiritual questions to different standards. There are very successful scientists who are deeply religious or spiritually curious. How do they do it? Their success as scientists depends on their ability to compartmentalize their spiritual and scientific identities. Spiritual pursuits invoke intuition, the acceptance of subjectivity, and an openness to the unknown. Rigorous scholarly work, especially scientific work, requires rational thinking, the pursuit of objective truth, and skepticism. I think it is fine that people go to church or similar places to explore spiritual questions and to have religious experiences but college is not a church and should not be treated like one. Combining science and spirituality weakens science because it invites bias. Scientists must be vigilant against human biases.
MM: I really want to focus on ideological bias in the academy. Can you speak more about the “group-think” aspect? How would you convince a skeptic a) that we have echo chambers in areas of research and usually only one type of thought is allowed and b) these types of hive minds are damaging to the very concept of a university — where we should encourage diversity of thought.
CR: A skeptic can easily look at the data. It is well-documented that liberals far outnumber conservatives in academia. This is especially the case in the humanities and social sciences. And this imbalance will probably only increase because faculty have a lot of control over hiring decisions. They are likely to recruit like-minded faculty, particularly in fields in which one’s work is intimately and easily associated with one’s ideological or political beliefs, which is a danger by itself. I would also point out to skeptics that there are published research findings showing that many professors admit they would discriminate against a job candidate who holds opposing political views. Through such hiring practices, departments and colleges create echo chambers. It might be true that it would be hard to find conservative faculty to recruit in a sociology or cultural anthropology department but this might at least partially be the result of these fields having moved in a direction in which they essentially define themselves as liberal political projects. Conservative students are less likely to be attracted to fields they feel unwelcome in or that have the appearance of being inherently leftist. This is a real shame because centrist, conservative, and libertarian intellectuals have a lot of interesting and valuable ideas.
This gets to the issues of groupthink being dangerous to the university. Diversity of thought is vital for the marketplace of ideas. It also helps counter ideological biases that can make it harder to discover truth. For some fields, ideological or political views may not matter much because the work is so far removed from politics. However, in the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines with the least amount of viewpoint diversity, ideological and political views can impact the research questions asked, how the research is conducted, and how accurately and openly the research is communicated to students, policymakers, the media, and the public.
A lack of viewpoint diversity and the problem of groupthink may also threaten the status of universities in the domains of research and instruction. For example, there are many very good social and behavioral scientists who work for think tanks and research organizations outside of academia. Smart researchers who don’t conform to far-left views on campus might pursue nonacademic research jobs. Concerning instruction, there have been some recent cases of major companies eliminating their requirement of a college degree for employment. Instead, they are developing ways to identify and recruit smart and motivated people regardless of whether they have a college degree and provide in-house training. Universities may not be in immediate danger but the rising cost of a college education, the growth of the administrative class, and a shift in focus in some departments from rigorous education to social justice and political activism potentially open the door for alternative models of education.
MM: Have postmodern and post-structuralist theories worked themselves into the social sciences and beyond? How does this manifest itself in research, theories, and on campus in general?
CR: It depends on the discipline and even sub-discipline. Sociology, for example, has many empirical researchers doing very rigorous work that is compatible with other scientific disciplines. However, a portion of the field takes a more blank slate or constructionist approach that denies or ignores very strong evidence about human nature. Disciplines such as gender studies are hopelessly contaminated with postmodernism and some scholars in that and related fields are actively working against science, teaching their students that empirical science is a form of colonialist and patriarchal oppression.
The recent gender studies hoax paper The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct that James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian were able to get published in a peer-reviewed journal is revealing. Of course it is just one paper and one journal, but as the authors point out in a post for Skeptic.com, they made ridiculous claims using theories and concepts that they made no effort to understand. Their formula was to put forward ideology-based ideas (e.g., maleness is bad) and sufficiently wrapped them in postmodern nonsensical jargon. I would encourage people to read that Skeptic piece and the actual hoax paper. Again, it is a single demonstration but one does not need to look very hard to realize how these authors were able to get such an absurd paper published.
What should really worry us is that postmodernists have infiltrated education departments. They are trying to push their pseudoscientific agenda into education in other fields, including scientific disciplines. For instance, postmodernists have published papers arguing that STEM education is prejudiced because it focuses on concepts like evidence and objectivity. They claim that words like cause, determine, and test are sexist, racist, and oppressive. I have also seen education programs promoting the idea that math is a tool of oppression. Think about that. I really don’t know how fringe these ideas are. I am assuming they are rare but I have seen presentations and publications from researchers in education promoting ideas that are empirically unsubstantiated and deeply philosophically flawed.
I am not sure how much of an overall impact postmodernism has had by itself on campus culture but the idea of privileging feelings over facts is a key ingredient of activist campaigns to silence views that do not conform to far-left orthodoxy. As many have pointed out, it is a small group of professors and activists who are to blame, but many people, including campus administrators, capitulate to their demands just to keep the peace or avoid being labelled as racist, sexist, etc.
The previous points I made about religious cognitive processes are again relevant. Postmodernism has many quasi-religious psychological qualities. Postmodernists prioritize subjective feelings and personal testimonies over objective reality. They rely on intuition, not rational thinking. In fact, they explicitly criticize rationality. In addition, postmodernism in academia has characteristics in common with religious fundamentalism. In this fundamentalist movement, certain ideas cannot be questioned and anyone who challenges far-left dogma is viewed as a blasphemer or apostate. And like in any fundamentalist group, blasphemers and apostates are threatened with punishment or are socially ostracized. Also, as we have seen in a few campus protests, violence against the opposition is encouraged or rationalized.
My fear is that postmodernism will continue to grow for a number of reasons. First, many empirical social scientists provide cover for postmodernists even if they do not explicitly support their research methods because they are political allies and like the social and political outcomes postmodernists advocate for in their work. Second, as previously noted, faculty control hiring decisions and so once postmodernists have reached a critical mass in a department they can selectively hire other postmodernists. Third, and this point cannot be overstated in my opinion, postmodern research is easy to conduct and publish, especially with the proliferation of low-quality academic journals. Think about the research method of autoethnography, for example. It allows academics to secure a publication from essentially writing about their own, often mundane, life experiences and opinions. The lack of scholarly rigor in postmodern/constructionist research should concern any serious scholar in the humanities and social sciences.
MM: What are some ways academics are trying to “weaponize psychology”? Is this specifically to forward some political agenda? Is there blatant misrepresentation of research and falsification in these fields?
CR: Academics and administrators are promoting ideas that are not supported by empirical research or, in some cases, are actually at odds with what we know about human psychology. There is no reason to think, for example, that students need trigger warnings or safe spaces to thrive in college. In fact, trying to protect students from ideas they find unpleasant fails to prepare them for the real world. Humans are resilient. As I discussed at the start of this interview, we are a species that has to regularly grapple with a wide range of anxiety-provoking facts about the nature of existence. Most people, including the overwhelming majority of college students, are able to get up every morning and navigate the daily stressors of life and successfully manage fears and uncertainties. Even people who suffer severe personal setbacks and loss are typically able to rebound. The idea that colleges need to treat students like they are psychologically fragile is indefensible, as is the idea that words can invalidate someone’s existence.
Or how about the intersectionality identity politics and new segregation movement happening on some college campuses? Decades of research clearly show that fixating on group identity and segregating groups leads to ingroup bias and social conflict. To fight prejudice and discrimination, people from different groups need to be united, not divided, and able to get to know one another as individuals. This idea that we need segregated living, study, and social spaces based on categories such as race is a recipe for distrust and conflict, as is the idea that people should be told to be quiet because of their race or sex. Research also shows that promoting victimhood increases feelings of entitlement and selfishness, and it inspires other groups to respond in kind.
What about micraggressions? Are there individuals who are racist or sexist? Obviously, there are. Thankfully, our society has come a long way to combat these problems but they will never entirely go away. And we should challenge racism and sexism when we see it. However, this doesn’t mean that it is reasonable to interpret ambiguous, awkward, or even ignorant behaviors as microaggressions. The very concept makes little sense. If a behavior is subtle and ambiguous, how do we know the intent of it? Who decides? What good comes from teaching students to constantly look for offense? It is another example of the promotion of a victimhood culture on college campuses. And as I noted before, the identity politics being promoted by some professors and activists is likely only going to increase prejudice because it constantly emphasizes the group, instead of a common humanity and the value of the individual.
There are plenty of professionals on college campuses who should be able to look at the research and realize that these ideas are not supported. This makes me suspect that some of these efforts do, in fact, represent a weaponization of psychology to serve a political agenda.
This does not help students or the academy.