[Proposal] Mind the (ideological) gap - can we cancel 'cancel culture' on campus?

Research Importance

The debate over free speech has erupted on university campuses in the last five years, with institutions often being accused of bowing to social media pressure and broader market forces in not doing enough to uphold freedom of expression on campuses. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto committed the incoming UK Government to addressing this issue in some way, which led them to publish a policy paper in February 2021 that advances proposals that are designed to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” across British higher education settings.

Rather than focusing on high-profile cases that dominate media discussions about campus free speech, we are concerned about a culture of self-censorship and informal silencing in classrooms (see Duarte et al., 2015; Johnson & Peacock, 2020; Peters et al., 2020), and the effects this has on student experience and preparedness for life after graduation. As such, we are seeking funding to explore the utility of an emergent tool – the OpenMind app – in improving students’ openness to a multiplicity of viewpoints on campuses.

According to its website:

OpenMind is a non-profit organization that builds scalable, evidence-based tools to equip people with the habits of heart and mind to engage in more constructive and empathetic dialogue across differing backgrounds, beliefs, and values.

In seeking to achieve this aim, an app has been developed that is comprised of eight lessons that sequentially guide users through the psychology of tribal thinking, the development of intellectual humility, and to opening up to a variety of cultural and ideological viewpoints. To our knowledge there has been no published evaluation of the OpenMind app. We are proposing to run a comprehensive evaluation, taking students’ baseline ideological positions and personality traits into account when exploring the app’s effects on outcomes related to authoritarianism, intellectual humility, and indices of censorship. We will also explore the lasting effects of the OpenMind app over time, rather than simply testing its immediate effects as a user works through each lesson.

We will thus explore the app’s utility as an unobtrusive task that can be integrated at low cost, and at scale, within undergraduate induction events. If this is possible, and our data show that the app is effective in reducing polarisation and censorious thinking on campus, then it could serve as a grassroots method to achieve the aims of the Government’s freedom of speech drive without the need for political interference and legislation.


The project will adopt a three-wave longitudinal experimental design, exploring participants’ psychological perspectives on freedom of expression, viewpoint diversity, and indices of censorship at baseline (before engaging with the OpenMind app), and then approximately one- and six-months after engaging with these materials.

Participants will complete questionnaires at three time points. Time 1 is the most comprehensive assessment, and will be completed before any engagement with the OpenMind app. A comprehensive demographic measure will be administered, exploring participants’ sex, gender identity, age, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, and political attitudes. This will be supplemented by a comprehensive assessment of personality traits in the form of the Big Five Aspects Scale (BFAS; DeYoung et al., 2007). The BFAS will only be administered in this initial survey due to its length (100 items) and the fact that personality traits tend to be stable over relatively short periods.

The rest of the survey will measure our target constructs, which relate to participants’ interactions with polarising and controversial topics. We will measure open minded cognition (Price et al., 2015), political outgroup avoidance (Harper & Fido, 2021), intellectual humility (Leary et al., 2017), collective narcissism (Golec de Zavala et al., 2009), ideological dogmatism (Altemeyer, 2002), authoritarianism (Costello et al., 2021), and support for [self] censorship (Hayes et al., 2005). These constructs will be measured in the two subsequent surveys in the project.

After completing the baseline survey, half of all participants will be asked to work through the OpenMind app (our experimental intervention group), while the other half of participants will be allocated to the no-intervention control condition. Surveys will subsequently be administered after one-month post-enrolment (designed to capture participants just as they complete the OpenMind app’s lessons), and again six-months post-enrolment (designed to explore the lasting effects of the app on polarised and dogmatic thinking).

Sample Size

An a-priori power analysis using G*Power (Faul et al., 2009) suggests we need a sample of 348 participants to detect significant effects of a small magnitude (Cohen’s f = 0.10) with 95% power when alpha is set at a conservative .01. Anticipating some attrition, we are requesting funding for 450 UK-based student participants, who will be recruited via Prolific (7,916 active users currently meet these criteria).

Study Costs

Paying participants an hourly rate of £7.20 (and including 33% service fee and 20% VAT) would total £1,468.80 for an initial 20 minute baseline assessment, £6,732.00 for three- hours’ participation from our OpenMind intervention group, £550.80 for a 15 minute one-month follow-up for our no-intervention control group, and £1,101.60 for the final six-month follow-up for all participants at the end of the survey. We are therefore requesting £9,853.20 to cover all waves of data collection, and to pay participants in accordance with their time commitment.

Preregistration and Open Science

The study will be preregistered on the OSF upon acceptance of a Stage 1 registered report submission. Our target journal for publication is the British Journal of Social Psychology, which allows for open-access publishing via institutional agreements with Wiley, and which accepts registered reports submissions. If we are unable to obtain in-principal acceptance to this journal, we will proceed to preregister the study on the OSF and publish using the traditional review route in an outlet that will allow for open-access (again via institutional agreements with publishers such as Wiley and Springer).

We will also be posting a .qsf survey file for each wave of data collection to enhance reproducibility, and an anonymised datafile (scored data, minus Prolific IDs) will be posted on the OSF upon the deposit of a preprint of the final report on PsyArXiv.


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