Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.
I emphasized sections that I assume will answer some immediate questions, as not everyone has access to Psychological Science. Yes, they used different types of intelligence tests; verbal and spatial. Yes, they corrected for socioeconomic background. Their replication was in the UK and USA. Importantly, they focused on a few characteristics, attitudes toward homosexuals and race. It doesn’t seem like they explored an enormous range of opinions. And as noted in the paper they were looking at the social dimension of political ideology.
There is plenty of work on cognitive styles and political orientation. Recently it is moral foundations from Jon Haidt. Earlier you had George Lakoff’s models. Neither of these focused on general intelligence, the raw CPU power of the mind. Rather they surveyed moral intuition and personality profiles (for example, there is some evidence that those with a greater bias toward “openness” are more socially liberal).
Looking at the General Social Survey I too have found at a correlation between higher intelligence and social liberalism. On the other hand a good objection to this is that my estimator of intelligence, WORDSUM, was verbal, and liberals and conservatives may exhibit different cognitive profiles. This study takes that into account, adding spatial I.Q. tests to the mix.
It is important to emphasize that the authors do not posit an independent direct causal connection between low I.Q. and more reactionary attitudes towards race and homosexuality. Rather, they start out with a model where low cognitive ability people are drawn (or remain in) to conservative orientation, and this is further correlated with these specific racial and sexual attitudes. Like almost all psychology you can’t get the causation airtight (if you are a hardcore Humean you could probably say this for everything), but the correlation is suggestive in light of political and psychological models. The problem is the second. As Jonathan Haidth has articulated most recently most academic political scientists and psychologists have strongly social liberal views, and so they consciously or unconsciously tend to caricature and misrepresent the views of half their study population (notice that the authors assume that these socially conservative positions are ‘Dark Attitudes’; most people today would agree, but shouldn’t intellectuals avoid this sort of thing?). So though I have some confidence in the correlations, I’m a lot more skeptical of the explanatory models (though I don’t reject them out of had). There are so many models sitting around that how you chose models can be shaped by bias rather easily.
First, let’s hit the results.
The table above represents the results for the British cohorts and race, and the diagram to the left illustrates the outcome for the American sample and homosexuality. The primary point is that as per their hypothesis the effect of lower cognitive ability on prejudice toward other races and homosexuality is mediated more or less through ideology. Coarsely, stupid people aren’t racist, stupid people are more likely to be socially conservative, and more socially conservative people are more likely to be racist. How these join together though is something one can subject to more critical examination. The authors allude to this when they note that there is a finding that those who know people of other races tend to be less prejudiced, with the inference being that contact makes one less racist. But this is not an established causality. Rather, it could be that people with less prejudiced tendencies put themselves into situations where they are likely to meet other races. This tendency could be correlated with higher I.Q. through a mediation of a “cosmopolitanism index.” Who knows? There are many stories one could tell.
I do want to emphasize though that this is a coarse measure of ‘conservatism.’ In the early to mid aughts Paul Wolfowitz was a hated figure on the American political Left because of his critical role in buttressing the intellectual armamentarium favoring the invasion of Iraq. But it is well known that Wolfowitz was and is a social liberal, like a subset of neoconservatives who focus on foreign policy. On the above measure Wolfowitz, who has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and chemistry from Cornell and a graduate degree in political science from University of Chicago, would come out as a high I.Q. social liberal. Is that right? As far as it goes it is right, but on some level the results would be misleading in the more complex terrain of coalitional politics. A substantial number of Americans shake out as social conservatives and fiscal moderates/liberals. And yet this faction is totally unrepresented in modern politics. In contrast, their inverse, libertarians, do have some representation, albeit a marginalized one. Why? Because the latter position has modest high I.Q./elite support, while the former position has far less. If you changed the question to attitudes toward global free trade there would be a correlation between lower I.Q. and the ‘more liberal’ (at last in American politics) position.
This qualification also dovetails with the broader point about styles of cognitive thinking, and reliance on traditional norms as opposed to think a priori. Ironically it makes intuitive sense that higher I.Q. people would be less reliant on intuition, impulse, and collective wisdom. But there are limits to this. For example, see the reaction to the proposition of sex between consenting adults who happen to be siblings on an atheism forum (assume they use birth control). But some moral philosophers posit that this is not harmful or immoral, and should be socially accepted. It’s an interesting illustration of the boundary condition of the power of disgust and emotion, as only the hyper-rational feel comfortable even entertaining the moral legitimacy of this proposition. More relevantly, educated liberals also make use of ‘stereotypes’ constantly. It’s just that those stereotypes are of conservatives. I know this because almost all my friends are educated liberals, and they often forget that I’m a conservative. So I hear a lot about conservatives are this and that without qualification, to great merriment and laughter (also, conservatives are genuinely evil and malevolent apparently!). The tendency toward generalization doesn’t bother me in an of itself, rather, I’m focused on whether the proposition is true. But the hypocrisy gets tiresome sometimes, as people will fluidly switch from a cognitive style which accepts generalization to one which rejects it. A stereotype is often a generalization whose robustness you don’t want to accept. Negative generalities need context when they’re unpalatable, but no qualification is necessary when their truth is congenial. Sometimes this veers into moderately politically incorrect territory. I was once an observer on a conversation between liberal white academics who were mulling over the unfortunate reality that their Asian American students were far more likely to cheat to obtain better grades. I suspect that this is actually true for various reasons. But I also suspect that these academics forgot that I was privy to the conversation, and wouldn’t have aired this truth in a more racially diverse social context.
More broadly what is the takeaway from this sort of research? Should we conclude that because the more intelligent tend to be socially liberal that socially liberal propositions are true? I think one should be skeptical of this position. There are two immediate rejoinders. First, politics is a matter of values. The reliance of reason vs. emotion, individual ratiocination vs. historical or social wisdom, may vary. But that does not speak to the truth of any given value judgement, as those judgments are embedded in a system of norms, as well as individual self-interest (e.g., the higher I.Q. tendency to favorable attitudes toward free trade may have less to do with an understanding of comparative advantage, than an implicit understanding that globalization favors them as opposed to less intelligent lower classes). Second, the moral arc of history is not always unidirectional. The ‘progressive’ position is sometimes reversed. In Better for All the World there is a broad history of the rise of a consensus among economic and intellectual elites about the wisdom of coercive eugenics as an instrument of progressive social engineering in the late 19th century. Religious conservatives, whether evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic, were two of the greatest bulwarks against this force for progress. Arguably these two elements were more efficacious in resisting the spread of eugenics legislation than the Left critics, judging by the outcomes Southern Europe and the American South, as opposed to the more ‘forward thinking’ nation-states of Northern Europe and the American North. This fact is unknown to most of my friends and acquaintances, judging by repeated assumptions that any utilization of personal genomics for eugenic purposes will occur first in politically conservative jurisdictions.
With all these qualifications, I believe this sort of research is essential and insightful. We need to understand the patterns of cognitive variation, whether it be intelligence or personality, which may result in differences of opinion. At the end of the day no opinions may change, but one may be able to construct a crisper argument when taking into account the genuine roots of one’s political opponents viewpoints, rather than your own ill-informed caricature.
Addendum: I did not address the issue of revealed vs. avowed preferences and attitudes. But I think that this difference will not change the sign of correlation. For example, for various reasons I assume that the gap between white liberals and white conservatives when it comes to race is smaller in terms of the preference revealed in their choices, rather than the survey responses they give, but I don’t think it reverses the rank order of the correlation.
Citation: Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact, Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan 5.