Newcomb’s Bennington College Study

The impact of the college experience was made famous by Theodore Newcomb's classic Bennington Study--an examination of the political attitudes of the entire population of Bennington College. The dates of the study, 1935-1939, are a useful reminder that this is not a new phenomenon.

Today Bennington College is coed and tends to attract applicants who are aware of its politically liberal reputation. But in 1935, it was a women's college and most of the students came from politically conservative families--who, be it noted, could afford to send their daughters to an expensive college in the middle of history's worst economic depression. For example, over two-thirds of the parents of Bennington students were affiliated with the Republican Party in the late 1930s.

At Bennington, these women encountered faculty members and older students who held a much more liberal perspective on world affairs (such as the Great Depression and the threat of a second World War) than their parents did. And as the women moved through their education at Bennington, they moved progressively further away from their parents' attitudes. For example, in the 1936 presidential campaign, 66 percent of their parents favored the Republican candidate, Landon, over the Democratic candidate, Roosevelt. So did about 62 percent of the Bennington freshmen. But only 43 percent of the sophomores favored Landon, and only 15 percent of the juniors and seniors did.

For most of the women, their increasing liberalism reflected a deliberate choice between the competing reference groups of college and family. Initially, many of them chose to go along with the college norms for pragmatic or non-intellectual reasons; their newly adopted attitudes served a social-adjustment function for them. Here are two examples:

All my life I've resented the protection of governesses and parents. At college I got away from that, or rather, I guess I should say, I changed it to wanting the intellectual approval of teachers and more advanced students. Then I found that you can't be reactionary and be intellectually respectable.

Becoming radical meant thinking for myself and, figuratively, thumbing my nose at my family. It also meant intellectual identification with the faculty and students that I most wanted to be like. (Newcomb, 1943, pp. 134, 131)

But as the women continued to mature, their adopted beliefs and attitudes began to become a genuine part of their ideological identities. In other words, their attitudes shifted from serving a purely social-adjustment function to serving a value-expressive function for them:

It didn't take me long to see that liberal attitudes had prestige value.... I became liberal at first because of its prestige value; I remain so because the problems around which my liberalism centers are important. What I want now is to be effective in solving problems.

Prestige and recognition have always meant everything to me.... But I've sweat blood in trying to be honest with myself, and the result is that I really know what I want my attitudes to be, and I see what their consequences will be in my own life. (Newcomb, 1943, pp. 136-137)

Did these changes in political attitudes become a part of an enduring ideological identity? In general, the answer is yes. Two follow-up studies of the Bennington women 25 and 50 years later found they had remained liberal. For example, in the 1984 presidential election, 73 percent of Bennington alumnae preferred the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale over the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, compared with fewer than 26 percent of women of the same age and educational level. Moreover, about 60 percent of Bennington alumnae were politically active, most (66 percent) within the Democratic party (Alwin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991; Newcomb, Koening, Flacks, & Warwick, 1967).

Nevertheless, we never outgrow our need for identification with supporting reference groups. The political attitudes of Bennington women remained stable, in part, because they selected new reference groups after college--friends and husbands--who supported the attitudes they developed in college. Those who married more conservative men were more likely to be politically conservative in 1960. As Newcomb noted, we often select our reference groups because they share our attitudes, and then our reference groups, in turn, help to develop and to sustain our attitudes. The social-adjustment function of attitudes remains a potent force even when other functions are operative.