Critical Social Justice Attitude Study – Q&A

Construction and validation of a scale for assessing critical social justice attitudes” was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology last week. The two part study had 5878 participants representing all age groups, educational backgrounds, and geographical areas of Finland. The main finding was a robust gender difference in critical social justice attitudes. Three out of five women but only one out of seven men responded positively to critical social justice attitude statements. Another finding was that the measure performed well psychometrically. The measure was also correlated with negative mental health outcomes, but not more so than reporting being on the political left, which is a result found by other studies prior to mine.

This study had already been reported on while it was still ongoing. There had been interest in it in Finland, but still I did not expect to have my study, name, or face, plastered over American television. Two days after the study came out it blew up on X and ended up all over the international media. I only gave one interview about the study which was picked up by, among many others, the New York Post, Fox News, and the Daily Mail, which resulted in tens of millions of social media views for the study’s results. These outlets didn’t reach out to me for comments and went their own way in framing the message (“Woke people are unhappy”). Next day I talked to Helsingin Sanomat, where I had complete say on how to describe the study. They also did a great job with custom data graphics. So what was the study about? What follows is a Q&A about what I think are the main areas of interest around the study.

1. What are critical social justice attitudes?

By critical social justice attitudes (CSJA) I mean what is meant with the word “woke”, when it is not used pejoratively.

The study defined CSJA as “a propensity to

1) perceive people foremost as members of identity groups and as being, witting or unwitting, perpetrators or victims of oppression based on the groups’ perceived power differentials; and
2) advocate regulating how or how much people speak and how they act if there is a perceived power differential between speakers, and intervening in action or speech deemed oppressive.

This definition was based on thinking about what many others have written and said about the topic. In the end I think the definition of critical social justice (CSJ) is best captured by two sources: DiAngelo & Sensoy (2017) and Mounk (2023). DiAngelo and Sensoy, advocates of CSJ, offer a definition of it which also includes two parts: 1) a theoretical understanding of group identities based on power differences, and 2) active attempts to change the situation. They phrased it like this:

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

Mounk on the other hand elaborated components of this world view, called “identity synthesis” by him: skepticism about objective truth (from Foucault), discourse analysis for political ends (Said), group essentialism (Spivak), pessimism about Western society (Bell), basing public policy on group identities (Bell), intersectional activism (Crenshaw), and standpoint theory (Crenshaw; the belief that knowledge is situated and members of groups with different power may not be able to properly understand each other). These two definitions together appear to point to terrain that a conceptually valid CSJA measure should attempt to cover.

I refer to the studied phenomenon as critical social justice attitudes most of the time, but for convenience’s sake and in more casual conversation, have also sometimes just used the word “woke”, as it’s one syllable and critical social justice attitudes in Finnish is 18. I do not mean “woke” pejoratively and often put it in quotation marks.

2. How do you know the CSJA scale measures what it is supposed to measure?

In the study I asked the participants “If my friend called me ‘woke’ in good faith, I would agree with them, regardless of whether I approve of the term or not.” The mean for the answers to this question for different groups can be found in the table below under the abbreviation “GS” (global social justice item). Next to it are the CSJA scores from my measure.

As you can see the scores align nicely. For the participants who reported being “woke” or not “woke”, the scale predicted which one they were in 4 out of 5 cases (80.9% – a “useful” test in medicine is >75%). Whatever the CSJA scale measures, then, roughly corresponds to what study participants mean when they report on how “woke” they think they are, when the word is used by a friend in good faith. It’s still worth noting the CSJAS was not designed to be a discrete test but rather a continuous measure. It has low sensitivity for self-described “woke” men. It had the best specificity and sensitivity in women under 30 years old. Thus the CSJAS can perhaps be said to best describe critical social justice attitudes as understood by Gen Z women and that men and women mean different things when they say they are “woke”. For women it means agreeing with the CSJAS and for men it means being lukewarm about it but agreeing with “transwomen are women” and that more safe spaces are needed.

3. What kind of items made it into the measure?

There were 26 candidate items based on CSJ literature, contemporary discourse on media, social media, podcasts etc., and discussions with scale pilot testers. These covered a range of topics from critical race theory and intersectionality to queer theory and various items about intervening in problematic behavior or speech, like microaggressions or cultural appropriation. Some items had problems that were spotted by piloters, myself, or outside commentators and they were discarded from analyses. Other items did not perform well in analyses. However, the final seven items that made it in had robust psychometric properties from reliability and model fit to ability to predict self-reported “wokeness” and not be overly contaminated by neighbouring concepts like left-right and liberal-conservative axes. They also spanned different aspects of how I defined CSJA thoroughly enough:

(r) = reverse item; a, b, c indicates alteration to study wording

Most of these items are likely to be familiar to many people from contemporary political debate. Item 1 takes oppression to be the main explanation for a group difference. Item 2 measures advocacy for decolonizing university reading lists. Item 3 advocates intervening in microaggressions. Item 4 measures attitudes toward a contemporary debate over trans women in sports. Item 5 covers critical race theory’s opposition to color-blindness. Item 6, is a measure of standpoint theory (specifically whether group members have epistemic advantage over members of other groups, based on lived experiences), and may be the least familiar to a general audience. Finally, item 7 advocates (in reverse) intervening in cultural appropriation. These answers measure attitudes towards real world phenomena and they are not meant to have “right” answers.

4. Why is there such a big difference between the genders when it comes to CSJA?

Love ignites in Gen Z: Girl: “I think I like you! I could talk to you forever about the dead end of capitalism, norm-conscious relationships, and free Palestine!” Boy:”You’re really cute! There are only two sexes. Stop homosexualization! Islam is cancer.” / Ville Ranta, Iltalehti

Here my guess is as good as anyone’s and I’m only reporting the data. There has been a lot of reporting of late of Gen Z men becoming more conservative and women more liberal. Women have traditionally voted for more left-wing parties and men for right-wing. I wouldn’t be surprised if an explanation for this involved increasing time spent in echo chambers on TikTok, Youtube, and X – sources of overall political polarization. Because there is no prior data on CSJA, my study can’t indicate whether the gender gap in CSJA is growing. But now that we have the baseline, it can be monitored, at least in Finland. I’ve been told efforts are already under way to translate the measure into other languages, so hopefully we’ll have data from other countries as well.

5. What can be said about the results involving mental health?

The measure was correlated with anxiety and depression (r = .30 and r = .25). On the other hand, so was self-reporting to be on the political left. The correlations were of a similar magnitude and are, given that the CSJA and being on the left were strongly correlated in the study, likely part of the same picture. As the study was cross-sectional, I make no determination about causality in either direction, or whether a third variable causes the association between political views and mental health. The connection between political views and mental health has been reported in prior studies, and in that way, this study did not break the news. This study was still probably the first one to report the link between CSJ beliefs and mental health per se, and I don’t mind taking credit for it. However, I did not agree with how this result was reported on, as being on the political left was already correlated with worse mental health prior to when “being woke” became a mainstream thing on the left.

6. Why study this topic?

A reporter asked me whether studying this topic will further inflame the culture war. I see the job of science as looking at how the world is like and then providing data for the benefit of the public. If we had a debate on what effects smoking cigarettes or going to the gym had on humans or society, and there were no data to make determinations, the person who supplied accurate data would do a service to everyone. Researchers gather data on political attitudes, opinions, movements and ideologies and the fact that CSJ became so prominent with very little data on it meant that time was ripe for it to be studied empirically and quantitatively. This study or the measure I developed are unlikely to be perfect and that is the way it should be with science. This is the first step towards a better understanding of the phenomenon studied here. New studies and perhaps even new measures will then improve on this one and a literature will grow.

Those were the questions I thought of for now. I may come back and add to this later, and you are also welcome to ask more in the comments or send them to polaht at utu.fi.

Edit: I do think some of the items can still be improved. Here are the wordings I would use if I did a study now. I welcome people to suggest even better wordings.

CSJAS1 Income differences between white and black people are mostly explained by racism.

CSJAS2 (reading list item is the same)

CSJAS3 (microaggression item is the same)

CSJAS4 Trans women should not compete with cis women in sports.

CSJAS5 In general, talking more about the color of people’s skin is not required for advancing human rights.

CSJAS6 In general, a white person cannot understand a black person equally well as another black person.

CSJAS7 (cultural appropriation item is the same)

Edit2: The way my comments were written up in foreign press has created some confusion. For instance, neither I nor the study’s press release discussed mental health results, which I don’t consider central to the study. In several spots the reporters just read the research article on their own and presented their interpretation of it making it look like I said it. Here’s the PsyPost interview in whole:

“1.) Why were you interested in this topic?

I had been paying attention to a development in American universities, where a new discourse on social justice became prevalent in the 2010s. While critical social justice (or intersectional or “woke”) discourse draws mainly from dynamics within American society it has now surfaced in other Western countries as well. The arrival of a critical social justice (often called “woke”) discourse sparked much debate in Finnish media in the last couple of years. This debate was largely data-free and it could thus be considered a worthwhile question to study how prevalent these attitudes are. No reliable and valid instrument existed prior to the study to assess the extent and prevalence of these attitudes in different populations, so I set out to develop one.

2.) What should the average person take away from your study?

Critical social justice attitudes are much more common among women than men. Three out of five women view “woke” ideas positively, but only one out of seven men. This was the case in Finland, at least.

Additional/optional questions:

3.) Was there anything in particular in your findings that surprised you?

The gender divide was probably most surprising to me.

4.) Are there any major caveats?

The studies were quite robust with a sample size above 5000 and good psychometric properties. However, the scale would need to be validated in North American samples in order to know how these attitudes manifest there.

5.) What are your long-term goals for this line of research?

The goal was to measure these attitudes and I accomplished that by creating the scale. I may or may not do more studies with it.

6.) Is there anything else you would like to add?

I encourage colleagues in the US to study the prevalence of these attitudes in the country where they originate from.

7.) What is your official title/affiliation? If you have a website and/or book, I can include link(s) to those as well.”

Title: Senior researcher / Doctor of Psychology / INVEST Flagship at University of Turku, Finland
Website: oskarilahtinen.fi
Book: https://www.suomalainen.com/products/mindfulnessin-lapivalaisu

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