By: Arthur Schoen  | 

Featured Faculty: Professor Ariel Malka

Professor Ariel Malka has been teaching in Yeshiva College since 2009. An alumnus of the University of Rochester and Berkeley, he has conducted extensive research in various fields of social science and has published a number of fascinating findings. He teaches in the psychology department and also offers a course in YC's Core Curriculum. Professor Malka recently was granted tenure, and in honor of this milestone The Commentator sat down (virtually) with Professor Malka for an interview.

AS: I think a lot of people - myself included - walk into their first class with Professor Ariel Malka expecting someone with a thick Israeli accent. However, unless you hide it really well, you seem to be pretty American. Can you tell us a bit about your life story? Where are you from originally? Is there an Israeli connection there?

AM: My father is from Israel, and my mother lived in Israel for many years. My parents moved from Israel to the US in the 1970s, and I grew up in Levittown, Pennsylvania. I do have a good deal of family in Israel, but it has been quite some time since I’ve visited.

AS: Could you tell us briefly about the different classes you offer in YU?

AM: For the last several semesters I have taught a course called "Psychology and Public Opinion", which is both a general education ("Core Curriculum") course and a psychology course. This course deals with theory, methodology, and findings from social scientific scholarship on the psychological origins of political attitudes. In addition to learning about scholarly research, we discuss "current events" articles and blog posts that analyze recent election and public opinion polls. I also teach courses in statistics and research methods, as well as social psychology.

AS: What was the topic of your PhD? What else did you study in your six or so years at Berkeley? (or in undergrad at Rochester?)

AM: My research interests have really evolved over time. During graduate school I worked on research examining how goals and values relate to well-being, and also on research examining different types of achievement motivation. I started learning more about political psychology late in graduate school, but my interest in that area really developed during my postdoc.

AS: I saw on your CV that you spent around 5 years at Stanford as a Postdoctoral Scholar and a Research Affiliate. Can you tell us more about what you were working on there?

AM: During my postdoc I really delved into new topic areas and spent a lot of time reading and gaining knowledge of research on political attitudes. I began analyzing public opinion data on topics such as religion and politics, attitudes and beliefs about global warming, and the role of social identity in public opinion. In addition I worked on a large-scale survey methodology project that tested the effectiveness of a novel internet survey platform. Based on work conducted largely during this time, I subsequently published research on when and why religiosity impacts political attitudes, the influences of partisanship and trust in scientists on beliefs about global warming, and the possibility that self-identifying as "conservative" or "liberal" can lead people to adopt political attitudes merely because those attitudes are said to be ideologically appropriate.

AS: Can you tell us about some projects that you are working on?

AM: I'm working on several projects at the moment. One project that I’m working on is a large-scale cross-national study of how political attitudes tend to be structured across different societies, and why. I’m trying to understand how cultural attitudes (e.g., sexual morality, immigration) and economic attitudes (e.g., redistributive social welfare policy, industry regulation) tend to be packaged together among mass publics in different kinds of countries. One key finding here is that – when one looks at a wide range of countries that vary in development, cultural characteristics, etc. – social conservatives are often more likely to lean left economically than to lean right economically. This runs against the conventional wisdom in social psychological studies of ideology and might be counter-intuitive for those who focus mainly on the American political context. My collaborators and I are interested in what these findings can tell us about the nature of right vs. left ideological conflict and how background characteristics (like some personality traits and demographics) might exert opposite ideological effects across the cultural and economic domains. Other projects that I’m working on include:
- a critical review of the literature on psychological differences between the political right and the left
- a set of studies on European attitudes toward Israel, and how these attitudes relate to views about Jews, views about Muslims, and various background characteristics.
- A cross-national study of attitudes toward traditionally disfavored groups, such as women and religious and ethnic minorities
- Studies examining the effects of question wording and question order on survey responses.

AS: Many of our students may have seen the piece you published in the New York Times in January along with Professor Michael Inzlicht, "The Paradox of the Free-Market Liberal." What led you to publish this work in the Times? You have published numerous articles and studies in a wide array of scholarly journals, but here you made your work available for broader public consumption. How did you decide to do that? Was there something about that topic in particular that you felt would appeal more to a broader audience?

AM: I'm generally of two minds about attempting to write for a wider lay audience. On the one hand I like the idea of contributing to a broader discourse about politics in whatever small way I'm capable. On the other hand I find it tricky to deal with the trade-off between trying to write engagingly for a lay audience but still conveying the appropriate qualifications and uncertainty that are inherent in science. For this reason, I don't often attempt to write for a broader audience. In the case of the NY Times piece, Michael Inzlicht and I thought that a recent paper of ours (published with Christopher Soto and Yphtach Lelkes) might be of general interest to readers curious about the psychological factors underlying political ideology, and that we might be able to describe our findings and their potential implications in a way that's understandable, accurate, and relevant to current political topics in the news media. So we wrote the piece and shopped it around, and were fortunate to have had it accepted to the NY Times.

AS: What led you to come to YU? What do you like about working here? Have you noticed anything in particular that distinguishes the YU student (for better or for worse... :) ) from students you have encountered in other settings?

AM: I really like the combination of seriousness about research and emphasis on undergraduate education, and the way research and undergraduate training mutually reinforce each other at the YU undergraduate schools. I appreciate that the student body is quite intellectually energetic, a characteristic that might be rooted in the Modern Orthodox community's approach to religious studies. I've noticed that the typical undergraduate I’ve taught here likes to carefully scrutinize social scientific findings, rather than take their conclusions at face value. That makes teaching here a distinct pleasure -- because this is a big part of what I try to nurture in the classroom. Also, I've noticed that while the students here are often described with the blanket term "conservative" many of them actually seem to combine many aspects of a progressive outlook with a reverence for tradition. For some populations those two ways of looking at the world would feel inconsonant, but for the students here those two attributes seem to co-exist pretty naturally.

AS: What does it mean for you as a Jew to work at a Jewish university?

AM: I am a secular and non-practicing Jew, and I did not specifically seek out employment at a religiously affiliated university. That being said, a cultural identification with the Jewish people is definitely a part of who I am, and this influences my experience at YU. I am quite aware that I'm playing a role in the education of fellow Jews who are much more devoted to the religion than I am and who will often take leadership roles in the community. The best that I can hope for is that, in part as a result of my teaching, former students will seek out and open-mindedly interpret evidence when reaching conclusions about the social world.

AS: A lot of your work deals with the interface between religious and political attitudes. From your time working here at YU, do have any particular insights about our student body - which is largely conservative, both politically and religiously - that you would like to share?

AM: I have two good reasons for not connecting my casual observations of the YU student body with the inferences I make from research on religion and politics. First, Modern Orthodox Jews are a unique group that constitutes a tiny proportion of the American and world populations. Second, casual observation of people with whom one interacts is not a good way to reach general conclusions about a population. That being said, one of the findings I've published is that it is only among politically engaged people that religiosity tends to go hand-in-hand with conservatism on many issues. That is, people who pay little attention to politics tend not to show much of a link between religiosity and conservatism (and, conversely, secularism and liberalism). Thus to the extent that the Yeshiva College student body is politically engaged, religious, and conservative, it would seem to "fit the data". But I would not make much of this casual observation.

AS: Could you tell us about some of your mentors?

AM: I've been quite fortunate to have had really good mentors, all of whom have been generously helpful and supportive, and who, as a group, are quite diverse in terms of approaches and expertise. In graduate school, I worked with Jennifer Chatman (a scholar of organizational culture), Martin Covington (an educational psychologist) and Oliver John (a researcher in the areas of personality traits and personality perception). During my postdoc I worked with two mentors. One is Dale Miller, a social psychologist best known for work on social norms and the psychology of justice. The other is Jon Krosnick, known for research on political attitudes and survey methodology. My research interests are closest to Krosnick's, and he has probably had the greatest influence on me professionally.

AS: You teach the class Psychology and the Public Opinion as part of YC's "Core Curriculum," in the Human Behaviors and Social Institutions (HBSI) section. What is your feeling about the Core curriculum? Do you see any particular advantages (or disadvantages) of this type of curriculum?

AM: As a multidisciplinary social scientist I love teaching a core curriculum class on psychology and public opinion. More generally, I see a number of advantages to teaching students about a broad topic from the standpoint of multiple disciplines. However, I do not have a strong opinion about whether general education courses should come from single disciplines or should be multidisciplinary -- it was never apparent to me that one approach is clearly better than the other for general education purposes.

AS: How do you think that the fact that YC now is under a combined deanship (with Stern) will affect the YC student's academic experience?

AM: I'm really not sure and I think it's too early to judge. A unique strength of undergraduate education at YU is that students have direct involvement with professors who are active and successful researchers within their fields. In my opinion, this is a core aspect of the YU undergraduate experience, and it influences graduate school admissions. As long as the administration reinforces that strength then the student experience will be great.