College students afraid of speaking out about controversial issues: the U.S. versus New Zealand

January 17, 2023 • 12:30 pm

This piece is from the blog of the Heterodox Academy (HA), a group founded by Jon Haidt, Chris Martin, and Nicholas Rosenkranz to promote viewpoint diversity an counteract academic and ideological conformity, especially of the authoritarian sort. They regularly publish articles, and have several discussion groups, including one about STEM matters.

Last year I wrote about the HA’s “Campus Expression Survey“, in which they surveyed U.S. college stuents for their willingness to discuss controversial topics. Students were generally unwilling to talk about controversial subjects, but not the majority of them. This is what they found, summarized in the article below as well as in a recently-published paper (click on screenshot below to read the former):

Between September and November 2021, Heterodox Academy (HxA) surveyed 1,495 full-time college students ages 18–24 across the United States as to how comfortable or reluctant they were to speak their views in the classroom on five core controversial topics — politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender — as well as one specific controversial topic (the COVID-19 pandemic). Students also reported their comfort or reluctance to speak their views about noncontroversial topics for comparison. The HxA researchers found that 60% of US participants expressed reluctance to discuss at least one controversial topic. Students who reported having low interaction quality with classmates (i.e., not much opportunity to get to know other students) also reported higher reluctance to discuss all five of the core controversial topics.

That’s a reasonable sample, but in general about 25-40% of students were unwilling to share their reluctance to discuss each topic in the classroom, with 60% unwilling to discuss at least one topic.  Some of this surely reflects chilled speech and fear of not sharing “tribal views”, but some of it must be general shyness. It’s not clear what the percentage would be if nobody was afraid of demonization, for even in that case some students would be reticent to speak about stuff!

Now the HA took its survey to New Zealand, and the comparison is given in the following short piece. Overall, NZ students aren’t that much different from American ones:

The rationale for studying New Zealand students:

These trends from the US campuses may seem worrying. It is possible, though, that these views reflect only the United States, with its two-party system and high rate of polarization. How similar is the situation in British Commonwealth countries like New Zealand?

Unlike the United States, New Zealand has a progressive parliamentary democracy, although the country is of course not free of political disagreement. The political system of New Zealand grapples with issues that drive political divisions in the United States as well, including racial prejudice, gun laws, vaccination, taxation, and climate change. However, on the whole, New Zealand society does not display the deep partisan mistrust that characterizes American society.

. . . Bradley Wendel has written about significant differences in the notion of fairness and trust in the government that separate the American and the New Zealand political systems.

. . . New Zealand is also a good comparison as the country has similar issues around political disagreements as the United States and shares the same social issues, including prejudice, inequality, vaccination, taxation, and climate change, that drive political divisions in the United States. At the same time, it is free of the partisan mistrust that characterizes much of American society. It is quite possible that the pattern of responses by New Zealand students would differ from their US counterparts. To find out if this is true, we replicated the US survey with 792 undergraduate students across three of New Zealand’s largest universities.

The answer is simple: yes, Kiwi students are just as wary as American students are of sharing their views in the classroom.  The new survey involved 792 undergrads in 3 New Zealand universities.  In this case, race wasn’t surveyed as a “hot topic.” Though New Zealand doesn’t have the black-white divisions that we do in America, they do have their own racial issues, with the Māori people citing pervasive racism and oppression.  The failure to ask about this is not explained.

Though there are nuances of the data that are explained in the text, like differences between the sexes, religious vs. nonreligious, and liberal vs. conservatives, here’s the one important plot from the published summary paper in the journal Social Sciences:

The overall figures are about the same. (Curiously, they didn’t ask what percentage of students would be reluctant to discuss at least one of these topics.)

The authors of the Soc. Sci. paper conclude this way:

The results are clear: chilled campus speech is not unique to the United States. The results do not, however, support a universal phenomenon. Like any country, New Zealand is quite distinct from the United States on some dimensions, but very similar on others. It is not possible from an analysis of New Zealand alone to tell which dimensions are relevant to campus expression or the extent to which results are the consequence of American cultural exportation. Our results ultimately represent just one, albeit significant, dataset, and we encourage other researchers to administer their own versions of the survey to their own students—and academic staff—to create a more accurate picture of the international situation on university campuses.
It’s clear that the differences among topics don’t reflect simple shyness or reticence, as the values would be more equal if that were true. But it’s also not clear how much of the reluctance to speak is due to fear of opprobrium (“chilling”) as opposed to simple shyness or unwilliness to speak in general. At least the figures don’t go above 50%—but remember that this is self-report. I would expect the true figures to be a bit higher than this.

8 thoughts on “College students afraid of speaking out about controversial issues: the U.S. versus New Zealand

    1. Exact same wonder here. Only going back 10, 20, 30 years, the topics to be reluctant about would surely have changed. Also it would be good to maybe get a pre-measure of where they are in the political spectrum. Students who are from the left could report quite differently from those on the right.

  1. It must be a nightmare to have to sit quietly in class for fear of saying the wrong thing, but how terrible to not even be able to talk to your peers honestly for fear of transgression. I can think of any number of dining hall conversations that I wouldn’t dare have now.

  2. Hard to say what it all means. It’s possible that students have always been reticent about discussing controversial topics. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I would have been very reluctant to claim to support the U.S. war in Vietnam. Or, in the early 1970’s I would have been reluctant to claim to be a supporter of Richard Nixon. Where I went to high school and college, the teachers were so clearly left-leaning that supporting those two (the war and Nixon) would have been very uncomfortable. Abortion at the time? I think the students would have been OK discussing abortion—at least among themselves. But, who knows. I wish we had the historical data necessary to tease apart the variables.

  3. Back when I was working, just before the turn of the millennium in the UK, there was a (normally) tacit agreement in the office that we should not discuss the Royals, Religion, and Car Parking. This was to avoid contentious arguments. I had to have a quiet word with one of the temporary staff about the agreement to defuse the debate about (then) Prince Charles and the death of Princess Diana.

    So the question is, in my mind, how has courtesy and good intent morphed into fear of censorship and social disapproval?

  4. Interesting to see students in NZ even more reluctant, in general, to discuss topics than in the US. It would have been good to see questions about race (and perhaps Mātauranga Māori).

    As others have said above, it would be useful to see how attitudes change over time so let’s hope that this is the first of many comparable surveys.

  5. I will suggest that this relates to a previous conversation here where we were discussing why young people are more likely to stay left into adulthood.
    The truth, I suspect, is that young folks with what would recently have been considered conventional views are very reluctant to speak about them.

  6. Some of this surely reflects chilled speech and fear of not sharing “tribal views”, but some of it must be general shyness. It’s not clear what the percentage would be if nobody was afraid of demonization

    The obvious way to address this question at the design stage of the survey would have been to intersperse questions on “controversial” topics with questions on non-controversial topics, without clearly flagging which questions will be analyzed in the controversial category, and which as “non-controversial”.
    The standard trick for an interviewer (or their sound engineer, if they have one) to get sound levels is to ask the interviewee what they had for breakfast, and in that vein I’d maybe have leavened the interesting questions with ones about food – freeform ones (“what’s your favourite breakfast menu” – empty text box), multiple choice ones (“hamburger, taco or pizza?”), numerical ones (“how often do you eat bananas, per month”), whatever you need to match the distribution of question types for the controversial topics.
    It’s not rocket science – it was a minor topic in my undergraduate statistics course. So one wonders why they didn’t do this, to get the background levels of communication recorded for the population sample distinct from the question of controversiality or non-controversiality.
    I suppose it does cost to design a survey carefully, and longer questionnaires will have more drop-outs so need a larger sample to achieve the desired completed sample. But if your survey doesn’t answer the desired question, then the money was wasted.

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