The Wonderful and WEIRD World of Academia

Academia is in many ways an upside-down world, occasionally really the ivory tower it is often blamed to be. To begin with, a lot of research has zero practical relevance, which isn’t to say, that it may not turn out to have one after all. It even gets weirder, instead of getting paid for being published a lot of professors pay for getting published (albeit only in very prestigious journals), almost reversing all economic principles. The list goes on: most universities offer free online courses that were obviously not free to produce. Even if professors usually only teach around 10 hours per week, most of them work more than the average 40 hour week as they are passionate about their subjects and surprisingly underpaid. Most university lecturers earn less than the average manager or even doctor.

One conclusion that can be drawn here: universities aren’t very materialistic places, but more idealistic than the world out there. And often it’s literally all about ideas. In fact, there are also lots of weird ideas coming out of universities and they certainly do attract a lot of weird people. Olga Khazan, journalist and author of the book Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World was a weirdo in her conservative highschool in Texas. Her first year of college turned out to be wonderful as she discovered “democrat guys”, some of who no less weird than she had been:

I had also never met so many male Democrats, which thank goodness, because if I had I might have tied a lasso and roped them, just like they taught us they do with errant calves back in grade school. It wasn’t so much their views on NAFTA or solar panels that I craved as the fact that Democrats, in my mind, meant different . A different guy, I thought, would understand me.

My own experience with university was in a way similar. I suddenly found it much easier to make friends than in the conservative Catholic school I had attended. It is well-known by now that democrats and conservatives don’t mix that well (a phenomenon called “assortative mixing”). Whereas in my Catholic high school hierarchy and tradition were writ large, my professors at university were very “egalitarian” and liberal. But how liberal are university profs really?

Langbert and Stevens look at voter registration and candidate contributions for a sample of more than 12,000 profs from several of the top schools in each state. The upshot? “48.4 percent are registered Democrats and 5.7 percent are registered Republicans, a ratio of 8.5:1. “ Registration ratios ranged from 3:1 in economics departments to 42:1 in anthropology and tended to be worse at higher-ranked schools.

People used to believe that the level of education was the main reason, however even though education may make a difference it’s probably not a terribly big one. It’s more likely that people are genetically predisposed to have a leaning and people with a democratic leaning become university professors more often than republicans… the same is true for journalists like Olga Khazan.

Most university professors have a particular personality type: they are NTs (rationals) in Myers-Briggs and are highly open to experience. In my model, these people have a higher hunter-gatherer genetic heritage (egalitarian, pattern-seekers) vs conservatives having more farmer genetic heritage (higher level of conformism, social learning and status-oriented)

Indeed, the more you go into academic fields that don’t promise a great financial career, say, linguistics, sociology or anthropology (as compared to say medicine or business studies) the more democratic and WEIRDer people become. A few years ago, psychologists looked at all of the psychological studies of people in different cultures and concluded that Westerners are WEIRD. That’s an acronym, not an insult. People from Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries are consistent psychological outliers compared to the other 85% of the world’s population. One of the findings was that WEIRD people are more like hunter-gatherers than traditional farmer-herder societies. Further have shown that liberals are even “WEIRDer” than republicans.

So, the WEIRDer, less materialistic an academic field is, say astronomy or philosophy, the more hunter-gatherer types you will find there. This is even true for broad fields like medicine. While the typical surgeon is a republican, the typical psychiatrist or paediatrician is a democrat:

For alienated hunter-gatherer types it’s therefore well worth going into some WEIRD academic fields. Mine was linguistics, and even though linguistics has never made me any money I have no regrets and I am grateful for all the friends I made there.

Originally published at on April 10, 2021.