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Are Politically Correct Students Better or Worse Students?

In my current book project, one of my goals is to provide the fullest possible empirical accounting of the strange new persona sometimes derisively called the "social justice warrior."

Although the main contours of my argument are pretty well developed, there are various sub-hypotheses that I've had for a while — but no data to test them.

Just last week, I was offered access to a goldmine of data collected by College Pulse. They told me I'm allowed to share my analyses, but not the data. They have an app that gives students various rewards in exchange for taking surveys. They've taken dozens and dozens of surveys including the widest variety of questions, with consistent respondent IDs for each survey. This means all of their surveys can be merged for all the individuals who took each survey.

The major drawback of these surveys is that they are not representative samples — so we can't really know the degree to which patterns identified in them generalize to university students as a whole. But the lack of representativeness is somewhat offset by the sheer size of the sample. Think about it this way: If you could survey 100% of the people in some population, you wouldn't much care how the sample was drawn, right? Many of the College Pulse surveys have quite impressive sample sizes, with quite a lot of them including 20,000 or more students. While this hardly approaches 100% of university students, it's more than enough to be quite interested in what these data reveal. All datasets are partial and limited, and need to be checked against other datasets with different virtues.

The wide variety of fascinating questions, and the large samples, make this an ideal, first-stab testing ground for any number of hypotheses.

The GPA of the SJW

I've long wondered if there is a relationship between attitudes toward political correctness and academic performance in the student body. In other words, are "SJWs" more or less likely to be high-performing or low-performing students? Or perhaps there is some curvilinear relationship? One could generate a few different hypotheses on this question, but for this post I will simply introduce the data (check) and share some basic descriptive statistics approaching this question. This is likely just the first of many hypotheses I hope to explore with this data over the coming weeks and months.

First, the univariate distributions require some comment. First, students in the sample seem to report questionably high GPAs. Or perhaps students are disproportionately drawn from schools with rampant grade inflation. Either way, there's something going on, because Figure 1 shows that the sample has a lot of students claiming to be nearly perfect students.

Figure 1: Self-Reported GPAs in the College Pulse Sample

Figure 2 shows that students in this sample are quite strongly opposed to the idea of physical no-platforming. The survey item says: "A student group opposed to a controversial speaker uses physical force to prevent the speaker from speaking. In your view, the students group's actions are…" Most find it very unacceptable. Note that this is just one particular way of tapping what we might very roughly call, for shorthand, SJWism. What's great about the College Pulse survey data is that they ask a variety of different questions revolving around moralistic, speech-focused political activism, so we'll be able to triangulate with multiple variables.

Figure 2: Views on Physical No-Platforming in the College Pulse Sample

Aside: One thing I'd like to do soon is a factor analysis of a few of these SJW attitudes. It would be good if we could extract the latent variable underlying, for instance, opinions toward physical no-platforming, "call outs," disinvitations, and the other related but different tendencies associated with SJWism.


One of the arguments in my book is that the hyper-moralistic political activity of the "SJW" is, in many cases, a kind of thinly veiled economic activity. But there are a few different ways this might manifest, so we need to delineate different observable implications to make specific hypotheses falsifiable.

The omni-directionality of the following hypotheses merely reflects how little we understand the SJW phenomenon.

The angry runner-up hypothesis. Because today's political economy is increasingly a "winner take all" situation, individuals who once upon a time could enjoy relatively high income and status from a "second place" finish in the capitalist game, are now looking at prospects quite beneath their relative expectations. But the types of people who land in "second place" positions are still smarter and more capable than average — so they're not just going to accept outcomes beneath their expectations, rather some of them will seek to alter the rules of the game. "If you can't beat 'em, turn over the table!" If this is the logic behind SJWism, then perhaps we would expect SJWism to be most likely in the middle of the academic performance distribution. 

The shrewd winner hypothesis. Another possibility is that SJWism is a new kind of game, with emergent rules related to novel and complex socio-economic factors. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be more likely among the most intelligent and the best academic performers. If SJWism is the way to win cultural games today, and higher education is largely about signaling one's ability to win games, the best students might be most likely to become SJWs.

The brute force hypothesis. It might be the case that SJWism represents the vengeance of the intellectually dominated against the more intelligent. Seen from this angle, SJWism might be a way for the dumbest or most disorganized students to promote themselves through a kind of morally glorified brute force.

Figure 3 below shows a curvilinear relationship in which the lowest and highest levels of academic performance are associated with a slightly greater acceptance of physical no-platforming, and students in the middle of the range are least accepting. So it's not second-place students adopting SJWism to claw their way into top jobs or some such model as that (hypothesis 1). [By the way, I spoke too soon in one of my livestreams the other night; I reported this based on a too-quick look at this data, which I accidentally had backward — that will be the last time I foreshadow data-analytic findings live on Youtube before I'm actually done, sorry!] The differences here are pretty tiny, but that's in part because most students are strongly opposed to physical no-platforming, with the average level of acceptance quite low.

Figure 3: Political Correctness by GPA (Physical No-Platforming)

I was curious if Figure 3 might be a fluke related to that particular question, so I took another item tapping political correctness/SJWism to see if the same pattern holds. Figure 2 below shows that, yes, it does. The inflection point is lower on the GPA scale and the students on the bottom are not quite as PC as the best students, but again it's clearly non-linear: the best and worst students are less likely to think there's any problem with sensitivity, while the middling students are more likely to think students are too sensitive.

Figure 4: Political Correctness by GPA (Perceived Sensitivity)

These could maybe represent evidence for H2 and H3, in a kind of mixed effects model: Maybe the best students adopt SJWism out of their shrewd awareness that that's indeed how to win the game of institutionalized culture, and maybe the worst students adopt SJWism to turn over the table in a game they are unlikely to succeed in. Or none of these interpretations is accurate, which is very possible.

I was also curious if the curvilinear relationship is conditional on major. In retrospect there's probably a better way to do Figure 4, but it does the trick. I restricted the data to majors that had at least 200 observations. You have to be careful to not go fishing for patterns here, because of the multiple comparisons problem. Here's one thing that seems true, though: Most of the major/gpa-level combos that contain big outliers toward SJWism are on the lower half of the GPA scale (Nursing, Law/Crim, Econ, Education, Poli Sci, Chemistry). Whereas the positive gradient toward SJWism on the high-end of the GPA scale in Figures 3 and 4 appears to reflect a slight but more steady pattern in a number of majors (Comm, CS, Econ, Engineering, Pre-Med).

Figure 5: Political Correctness by GPA and Major

I wouldn't make too much of this but it's perhaps consistent with the "mixed effects" idea above. Better students veer toward SJWism because better students perceive that PC is part of winning in education and beyond, and so they slightly and gradually report higher levels of PC moving from 3.0 to 4.0. Then the really zealous SJWs are rare occurrences drawn mostly from the lower end of academic performers, perhaps as a kind of brute force strategy. But like I said, this was just a cursory exploration to dig into some new data. Let's see what else I find in future posts before I make any big claims.

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3 comments on “Are Politically Correct Students Better or Worse Students?”

  1. Interesting data! I think the mixed-effects you allude to might correspond to a progressive-conservative factor. i.e. the left tends to be either low achieving recipients of welfare (or at least sympathetic to welfare), or high-achievers who are so well-off they value positive externalities of welfare and the marginal utility of tax dollars that are required for welfare may be low. They are also unconcerned about others' catching up to them or surpassing them, so are more happy to help. Average performers, on the other hand, are highly attuned to the competitive pressures of daily life and feel it is a burden (both financially and morally) to support others. In short the left are either blue collar or intellectuals.

  2. Or Maybe it's a winners mentality and winner identification thing - Master/Servant connection?

    The high grades identify as SJWs because you have to be woke to get to the top, so consciously and/or unconsciously you repeat/make SJW-arguments. Just adding another token to cello, art, music, ... wokeness.

    The lower grades identify as SJWs because the higher grades actually are SJWs. So they copy the behavior of their objects/subjects of desire. By adding wokeness to their short token list, they can find a common ground with the masters. So they can be associated with high achievers, by feeling that they are being granted social access.

    But the high achievers only "recruit" SJW-low-achievers as an "army" that helps them maintain their status and keep the hierarchy in order by allowing them into large gatherings but not into key roles... ? #riffing Some sort of social justification theory might be in work:

    I bet there's ton of lit in social psychology about that. Why would some poor Libanese support Hezbollah in war and terror, shouldn't they be trying to raise their prospects, why would poor Rednecks support low taxation of the rich, shouldn't they be trying to raise taxes for their vertical infrastructure, why do poor Indian people support the elites, and so on and on...

  3. Although the differences are small the data is quite interesting. At the very least it does show nicely that we are indeed dealing with "minority rule".
    Is it possible to control sex and ethnicity?

    Moreover, and more importantly, as to testing your hypotheses, I should point out that since such a huge proportion of the students have top GPAs, the data does not distinguish between the brightest students and the mediocre ones who still get good grades.

    What seems to be of particular importance here, is that in Figure 3 (Physical No-Platforming), which indicates true SJWish behavior better than not finding other students overly sensitive (being true SJW entails being PC, but being PC doesn't entail being true SJW), the correlation seems far less linear (if Im' reading your graphs correctly—those blue dots designate mean?) than in figure 4. Actually, at least as far as I can tell, one can hardly interpolate a truly curvilinear correlation, and the data seems rather to consist of clusters, where the top cluster consists of students with GPAs ranging from3.6 upwards. That is: pretty much half of the whole set of students! (~8500 / 17000).

    As to being merely PC (not being annoyed by others being too sensitive), although the correlation seems to be truly curvilinear, that might be explained by gender (females are likely to have higher average grades, right?) and perhaps personality traits that produce both neediness and "good boy/good girl" attitude.

    In other words, what the data seems to indicate (assuming its a representative sample), is that SJWs are somewhat more numerous among the top-half performers of the student body.

    So, perhaps it is the mediocre "angry runner-ups" among the students with higher GPA's who are more likely to be SJWish?
    That would be my bet.

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