Men who self-report as “woke” don’t hold beliefs their female counterparts do

I’ve been thinking about the different groups in the Critical Social Justice Attitude Scale (CSJAS) studies and the scale’s ability to measure what the participants mean when they say they could be described as “woke” by their friend. These participants account for a third of the sample. 18% of men and 48% of women self-reported as “woke”. The CSJAS was validated in part by looking at its correlation with this self-reported “wokeness”.

In medicine, a test’s sensitivity and specificity mean its ability to confirm real positives and negatives and discard false ones. Used as a binary test, the CSJAS can predict whether women are “woke” or not with roughly 80% sensitivity and specificity, and both go up for Gen Z women. It does a particularly good job in predicting which men are not “woke”, with specificity of 97%. Women who say they are “woke” agree with nearly the entirety of the Critical Social Justice Attitude Scale. Women who say they are not “woke” reject everything on the scale except for one item. And men who say they are not “woke” want nothing to do with the statements. There is one group however, who say they are “woke” but clearly mean something else by it than the rest of the sample.

Men in the study who say they are “woke” present a conundrum. The scale doesn’t predict their “wokeness” well as sensitivity is essentially a coin toss with 54.5%. That means that out of the 18% or so of men who say they are “woke”, only little over half actually agree with the CSJAS items more than they disagree with them. Overall, this group doesn’t endorse a single scale item. This statistic sits well with my impression of occasionally seeing some men disparage the scale items as “nonsensical” online. However, “woke” Gen Z women, on average, agreed with every single item on the scale and scale scores somewhat reliably predict “wokeness” in the other 80-90% of study participants.

I’ll repeat the last part: young women who say they are “woke” agree with every single item on the Critical Social Justice Attitudes Scale. And the items can be used to predict whether they self-identify as “woke” or not, as it can be used to predict which men and women self-identify as not “woke”. What do the men who self-identify as “woke”, believe then?

Out of the entire battery of 20 test items there are two items they (barely) endorse: “Transwomen are women.” and “We should have more safe spaces in society.” Barely, as the means fall in the middle of “not agree, not disagree” and “somewhat agree”. What is meant by “woke” then, for this group, seems to be a lukewarm assessment of the entire battery of critical social justice beliefs, that their female counterparts take onboard, and an unenthusiastic endorsement of “transwomen are women” and adding safe spaces.

Seen through this lense, I can see why the CSJAS may appear ludicrous to some men in this group. If you’re not enthusiastic about combating microaggressions or cultural appropriation you are perhaps not going to like a scale that assesses your “wokeness” using these indices. The simplistic formulations may feel like they add insult to injury. Here, I feel like I should repeat the caveat that these items were designed more to capture an attitude, and less to be nuanced truth claims, though it would be great if they did both.

Psychology questionnaire items can sometimes feel frustrating in this way – they can feel like they are belittling the complexity of the measured phenomenon and your rich experience of it. They are just trying to do the least bad job of balancing nuance with succinctness. I’m sure CSJAS is guilty of this. I’ve seen a fair bit of criticism about how the items lack nuance or can be interpreted in different ways, but few have been able to suggest improvements to them, let alone better items. I’ve made a further round of possible improvements on them after the study.

However, as mentioned, the other 80-90% of the study sample seem to be mostly in agreement that yes, what they mean by “woke” is close enough to what the CSJAS has on offer. There is thus a rift between genders in this too (as there is in the prevalence of CSJA between genders) – men self-report as “woke” even when their idea of what that means is very different from women and “non-woke” men. “Wokeness” for “woke” men struggles to acknowledge that “transwomen are women” but for women encompasses a host of beliefs ranging from wanting skin color to be discussed more to decolonizing reading lists and combating microaggressions.

What should a measure maker do with this information? First, I wonder whether this finding is particular to Finland or if it replicates elsewhere. The measure has already been translated to other languages and other studies are planned, so more data may elucidate the question. If this finding is universal, then either critical social justice attitudes are to be defined differently for different groups or we have to wait for the different understandings of the term to converge between, say, left-leaning men and young progressive women.

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

Critical social justice attitudes


Two studies I conducted in 2022 on critical social justice attitudes were published as a single research article. The studies’ press release summarizes the main findings:

Critical social justice attitudes differ between men and women. Three out of five women responded to critical social justice statements at least somewhat positively. For men the figure was one out of seven.

In two survey studies conducted at University of Turku, covering a total of 5878 participants, a scale was developed to measure participants’ critical social justice (sometimes called “woke”) attitudes. The samples for the studies came from students and staff at the University of Turku (Study 1) and readers of Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (Study 2). The final scale consisted of seven statements covering current topics from cultural appropriation to whether we should talk more about people’s skin color.

In the study, men expressed being somewhat in disagreement with the statements on the scale. Women responded neutrally or cautiously positively to the same statements. The gender difference in scores was more than double, strongly indicating that the attitudes primarily exist among women in Finland: three out of five women responded positively to the scale’s statements, while the corresponding figure for men was one out of seven.

Gender differences recurred across all university disciplines, and for example, scale scores for male humanities students in were closer to Finns Party voters than female humanities students. Those most in agreement with the scale were Left Alliance and Green party voters, female teachers in education and humanities, and female students in social sciences.

The scale was compared with participants’ self-assessed “wokeness” and with their political views, such as positioning on left-right and liberal-conservative axes. The scale closely mirrored participants’ self-assessed “wokeness” and at the same time was sufficiently distinct from their other political opinions. The study was published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology and was conducted by Oskari Lahtinen, a senior researcher at the flagship INVEST.

Published stydy: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sjop.13018

News stories:

New York Post: https://nypost.com/2024/03/17/lifestyle/woke-people-more-likely-to-be-unahppy-anxious-and-depressed-new-study-suggests/

PsyPost: https://www.psypost.org/study-woke-attitudes-linked-to-anxiety-depression-and-a-lack-of-happiness/

Helsingin Sanomat: https://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/turku/art-2000010301828.html

Picture: Women’s Center at UMBC

Kriittisen sosiaalisen oikeudenmukaisuuden asenteista

Vuonna 2022 tekemäni kaksi kriittisen sosiaalisen oikeudenmukaisuuden asenteita käsitellyttä tutkimusta julkaistiin yhtenä tutkimusartikkelina eilen. Tutkimuksien mediatiedote tiivistää päätulokset:

Kriittisen sosiaalisen oikeudenmukaisuuden asenteet eroavat Turun yliopistossa tehdyn tutkimuksen mukaan merkittävästi miesten ja naisten välillä. Kolme viidestä naisesta suhtautui väittämiin positiivisesti, kun miehillä vastaava luku oli yksi seitsemästä.

Kahdessa yhteensä 5878 osallistujaa kattaneessa kyselytutkimuksessa muodostettiin mittari, jolla mitattiin tutkittavien kriittisen sosiaalisen oikeudenmukaisuuden asenteita (ts. ”tiedostavuutta” tai ”woke”-asenteita). Tutkimuksien otokset tulivat Turun yliopiston opiskelijoista ja henkilökunnasta (tutkimus 1) sekä Helsingin Sanomien lukijoista (tutkimus 2). Lopullisen mittarin koostivat seitsemän väitettä kattaen ajankohtaisia aiheita kulttuurisesta omimisesta siihen tulisiko ihonväreistä puhua enemmän.

Tutkimuksessa miehet ilmaisivat olevansa jokseenkin eri mieltä mittarin väittämistä. Naiset suhtautuivat samoihin väitteisiin neutraalisti tai varovaisen positiivisesti. Ero sukupuolien välillä oli pistemäärissä yli kaksinkertainen ja antoi vahvaa viitettä siitä, että tiedostavuutta esiintyy Suomessa ensisijassa naisilla: kolme viidestä naisesta suhtautui mittarin väittämiin positiivisesti, kun miehillä vastaava luku oli yksi seitsemästä. 

Sukupuolierot toistuivat kaikilla yliopistoaloilla ja esimerkiksi miespuoliset humanististen alojen opiskelijat olivat vastaamiskäyttäytymiseltään merkittävästi lähempänä perussuomalaisten äänestäjiä kuin naispuolisia humanististen alojen opiskelijoita. Voimakkaimmin mittarin kanssa olivat samaa mieltä vasemmistoliiton ja vihreiden äänestäjät, kasvatustieteiden sekä humanististen alojen naispuoliset opettajat ja sosiaalitieteiden naispuoliset opiskelijat.

Mittaria verrattiin tutkimuksessa tutkittavien itsearvioon siitä, kuinka tiedostavia he kokivat olevansa ja toisaalta heidän ilmaisemiinsa poliittisiin näkemyksiin, kuten sijoittuminen vasemmisto-oikeisto- ja liberaali-konservatiivi -akseleilla. Mittari toisinsi tutkittavien itsearvioita omasta tiedostavuudestaan melko tarkasti ja oli samalla riittävän erillinen näiden muista poliittisista mielipiteistä. Tutkimus julkaistiin Scandinavian Journal of Psychologyssa ja sen toteutti INVEST-lippulaivan erikoistutkija Oskari Lahtinen.

Tutkimusartikkeli: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sjop.13018

Tutkimus uutisissa:

Helsingin Sanomat: https://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/turku/art-2000010301828.html

New York Post: https://nypost.com/2024/03/17/lifestyle/woke-people-more-likely-to-be-unahppy-anxious-and-depressed-new-study-suggests/

PsyPost: https://www.psypost.org/study-woke-attitudes-linked-to-anxiety-depression-and-a-lack-of-happiness/

Kuva: Women’s Center at UMBC