Monday, January 30, 2012

Are conservatives just dumb?

We'd all like to believe that the people who disagree with us are stupid, right? Maybe it's not just that they're wrong, but that they aren't very bright in the first place.

So here comes a study which claims that low-intelligence is correlated not just with prejudice, but also with socially conservative beliefs. From LiveScience:
There's no gentle way to put it: People who give in to racism and prejudice may simply be dumb, according to a new study that is bound to stir public controversy.

The research finds that children with low intelligence are more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes as adults. These findings point to a vicious cycle, according to lead researcher Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, the study found. Those ideologies, in turn, stress hierarchy and resistance to change, attitudes that can contribute to prejudice, Hodson wrote in an email to LiveScience. ...

"They've pulled off the trifecta of controversial topics," said Brian Nosek, a social and cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia who was not involved in the study. "When one selects intelligence, political ideology and racism and looks at any of the relationships between those three variables, it's bound to upset somebody."

Polling data and social and political science research do show that prejudice is more common in those who hold right-wing ideals that those of other political persuasions, Nosek told LiveScience.

"The unique contribution here is trying to make some progress on the most challenging aspect of this," Nosek said, referring to the new study. "It's not that a relationship like that exists, but why it exists."

Earlier studies have found links between low levels of education and higher levels of prejudice, Hodson said, so studying intelligence seemed a logical next step.

As Hodson himself pointed out, this doesn't mean that all conservatives are stupid and all liberals are brilliant, nor even that all conservatives are racist and all liberals racially tolerant. These are averages. But still, it sounds like just what I want to hear.

So maybe I should remember that I'm supposed to be a skeptic, huh? What would I say about this if it wasn't what I wanted to hear?

Obviously, the biggest problem is that this is just one study. It's not the scientific consensus, and it may never be. As far as I can tell, their findings haven't even been confirmed by independent researchers, not yet. So, at the very least, it's too early to give this much credence.

I'm also skeptical about "intelligence" as a single, overall measure. What was it that was really being measured - problem-solving, memory, vocabulary? And note that most of this research was conducted in Great Britain, so certain factors could possibly be specific to the United Kingdom.

Finally, it's just correlation, not causation. In other words, this research didn't necessarily find that low intelligence causes people to lean right. Instead, assuming this research is correct, low intelligence and conservative ideology could be linked in another way (something else causing both, for example - see below).

If you're a liberal like me, this study might make perfect sense to you,... but then, it would, wouldn't it? :)
As suspected, low intelligence in childhood corresponded with racism in adulthood. But the factor that explained the relationship between these two variables was political: When researchers included social conservatism in the analysis, those ideologies accounted for much of the link between brains and bias.

People with lower cognitive abilities also had less contact with people of other races.

"This finding is consistent with recent research demonstrating that intergroup contact is mentally challenging and cognitively draining, and consistent with findings that contact reduces prejudice," said Hodson, who along with his colleagues published these results online Jan. 5 in the journal Psychological Science.

Hodson was quick to note that the despite the link found between low intelligence and social conservatism, the researchers aren't implying that all liberals are brilliant and all conservatives stupid. The research is a study of averages over large groups, he said. ...

Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world.

"Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order," Hodson said, explaining why these beliefs might draw those with low intelligence. "Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice."

In another study, this one in the United States, Hodson and Busseri compared 254 people with the same amount of education but different levels of ability in abstract reasoning. They found that what applies to racism may also apply to homophobia. People who were poorer at abstract reasoning were more likely to exhibit prejudice against gays. As in the U.K. citizens, a lack of contact with gays and more acceptance of right-wing authoritarianism explained the link.

I've already explained why I'll be reserving judgment here. Other than that, I'll let conservatives fight their own battles. I'm sure they'll be eager to do so. :)

Right now, I want to go in a little different direction, myself. Note this quote: "This finding is consistent with recent research demonstrating that intergroup contact is mentally challenging and cognitively draining." Assuming that this research is accurate, could it be that the causation is actually the other way around, that conservatism and prejudice cause low intelligence?

I was struck by a recent remark by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum:
Rick Santorum's crusade against higher education continues. The presidential hopeful explained Wednesday that President Obama doesn't want all Americans to go to college simply because he's a snob. It's also because he wants them to be pushed into liberalism. Because that's what American colleges and universities do. "It's no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college," he said while campaigning in Florida. "The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around, the ACLU would be out there making sure there wasn't one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities, right?"

This seems to be pretty typical of the right-wing, at least in America. Conservatives are often terrified of the "indoctrination" that threatens their children, meaning that they might encounter someone who thinks differently than their parents do.

They can go to great lengths to keep their children isolated. They may home-school, or send their kids to private religious schools. They'll socialize within the church. They want their children to hear nothing which might cause any doubts.

Often, their kids grow up among people just like them - the same race, the same socioeconomic background, the same religion. And as I say, much of that is deliberate. Their parents are scared to death that their child might start to think for himself. Heck, among the more cult-like religions, this voluntary segregation extends to the adults, too.

It's a scary world out there. The Devil is everywhere - some Christians think so, literally - and you mustn't listen to him. As Rick Warren says, "Don't ever argue with the Devil. He's better at arguing than you are, having had thousands of years to practice." Think about that message. Don't even try to think about what you believe. Certainly don't try to defend your thinking. That's just Satan's trap!

But if you never use your brain, except for rote memorization, how is that going to affect your intelligence? If you aren't challenged by people who think differently, you don't get to exercise your thinking skills.

Liberals tend to be more open to diversity, and their kids aren't as sheltered from diverse opinions. Their children still tend to believe what their parents believe, but at least they have to think about why.

Frankly, I'm often astonished at some of the crazy things conservatives believe. Frequently, when they argue about evolution or religion, they don't seem to know the first thing about the subject. I keep thinking that they must have led very sheltered lives, and I just don't think that makes for a healthy brain.

Rick Santorum is a good example, I think. Right-wingers like him are just terrified of universities, where their kids might finally get to hear diverse views. They call it "indoctrination," but isn't it easy to inoculate a kid against indoctrination? Just let them experience diverse views right from the start, so they're not completely unprepared for such things. And maybe that will encourage them to think, increasing their intelligence a bit, too.

Well, I don't know if prejudice and social conservatism cause stupidity, or if it's just the other way around. Heh, heh. Yeah, as I said above, I don't even acknowledge the correlation of low intelligence, prejudice, and conservative ideology, not yet. It might be true, but so far, it hasn't been conclusively demonstrated. This is just one study, not the scientific consensus. Not yet, at least.

But it's something to think about, isn't it? It's good for our brains to be challenged. When you have to think for yourself, it can't help but strengthen the little gray cells. It can't hurt, anyway, can it?

But if your beliefs are foolish, if they can't hold up in the free marketplace of ideas, thinking about them risks the danger that you might see how foolish they are. Well, that's the danger many on the right fear, though they may not put it exactly that way.


Jeff said...

Instead of "stupid," perhaps "arrested development" might be the best way describe conservatives.

I hope that's the case. Because, as Ron White said, "you can't fix stupid. Stupid is forever."

Arrested development can be fixed. I'm one example. I used to be quite conservative until I got to my mid-20's. How did I "unplug from the Matrix," so to speak? For one thing, I STOPPED WATCHING THE TV NEWS!! America's stupidest half-hour. I get my news from the Internet almost exclusively now.

It might not work for everyone, though. As Morpheus said in the first "Matrix" movie: "You have to understand most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And some are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on that system, that they will fight to protect it."

Gregg Garthright said...

It's certainly tempting to think that anyone who doesn't agree with me is stupid, but of course this study doesn't say that. It seems intuitive to think that people with more limited cognitive abilities could gavitate towards a more traditional or conservative point of view. Remember, we're talking about averages here - I've known a number of very conservative people (even some with fundamentalist religious views) who were very bright. I also question how you define intelligence - some very bright people I've known may not score highly on a test.

Of course, it could be just one of those statistical anomolies - I remember reading once about a correlation between which party controlled congress and which league won the Super Bowl. An interesting correlation, but not predictive (and not indicative of cause and effect). This is all fun to speculate about, but I don't think it's information that changes anything.

In any case, I wouldn't advise a politician to use that in his campaign - "Don't be Stupid, Vote for ME!" Hmmmm - on second thought, maybe that would work after all.......

WCG said...

With respect to Ron White, I don't think I agree with his statement, Jeff. I think we can fix stupid, to some extent, at least.

But I don't think that's the main problem, anyway. I don't think it takes much intelligence to change your mind. The big problem, in fact, might just be a lack of courage.

It takes courage to face the fact that you were wrong. Few of us like to be wrong, and even fewer of us like to admit it. And most people believe what they want to believe. So it takes real courage to recognize that it's not true.

It takes even more courage when you're going against your "tribe" - your family, your friends, your co-workers, your society. What will they think of you? How will they take your change of mind?

Re. getting your news from the internet, one problem with that is that we self-select where to get that news. So we tend to get our information entirely from people who agree with us.

I do that, too. But while it's easy to see the problem when it's Fox News viewers getting all of their information from the right-wing echo chamber, it's harder to apply that lesson to myself.

WCG said...

Yup. I agree with all of that, Gregg.

Jim Harris said...

There's a reason why it's called a liberal education. There's also correlations between religious beliefs and education. The the more college a person has the less likely they are to be religious. And there's a reason why fundamentalists are opposed to education - they're at least smart enough to know that a good education creates liberal thinkers.

Nate Abele said...

The clear irony here is that the *vast* majority of higher learning institutions in this country were founded by religious organizations: -- if anything, the current state of things now vs. then is related to the overall gradual shift away from sectarian influence since the early years of the country's origin (specifically with respect to institutions, the populace less so).

Also, the term 'liberal education' predates the modern usage of the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' in the political context.

I think the real conclusion to be found here is that intelligent people are willing to critically examine their own beliefs. Many people grow up unquestioningly adopting the beliefs and views of their parents, and some reject them in adulthood or upon coming into contact with experiences that break their inherited paradigm.

On the other hand, some (including well-known modern thinkers) have had religious experiences as a *result* of a critical examination of beliefs:

WCG said...

The vast majority, Nate? Is that true? It's true of those Ivy League schools, of course, but note that they were almost all founded while we were still a British colony.

Still, it might be true, I don't know. But I'm not sure how ironic that would be. Religious schools are generally founded in order to keep believers from being exposed to other viewpoints, exactly the point I made in the above post. Just look at Liberty University, for a more modern example.

You're right about the term "liberal education," although that's not how most right-wingers see it. I favor the earlier usage of the term myself, but the right-wing has been very successful when it comes to labels.

If you look at polls, a majority of Americans seem to agree with liberal ideas, but sure as heck don't identify with the label. And labels do matter.

Re. your last paragraph, I can hardly read that web page! What's with these sites and their bizarre color schemes? Still, by turning off the color I was able to puzzle it out.

And I'd have to say,... um, so what? At a quick glance, most of those people were raised Christian in a majority-Christian nation. And who doesn't want to believe they'll live forever in a paradise? (As you know, it's always very, very easy to believe what we want to believe.)

I'm somewhat familiar with the case of Dr. Antony Flew, which makes me rather doubt the honesty of the rest of that list.

And I had to laugh at this part: "Josh McDowell set out to disprove the Christian faith as a college student only to arrive, after many months of study, at the conclusion that Jesus Christ must have been who he claimed to be."

Heh, heh. I've got an acquaintance who set out to do something similar, to look at all major religions objectively, to see if one of them really made sense. Sure enough, he found one - only one religion which made rational sense.

Oddly enough, that turned out to be the religion he was raised to believe (Judaism). Heh, heh. It's funny how these "critical examinations of beliefs" tend to turn out to support what you already want to believe, isn't it?

Nevertheless, yes, there's no doubt that some atheists become Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists... or any other religion, sometimes. So what? People are people, and religious belief, after all, is far more common than the reverse, at least in most societies. I'd be shocked if such examples couldn't be found.

What I'd like to ask each of them, though, is why they believe what they do. Do they have a good reason? I've never actually heard of a good reason myself, and I've known a lot of believers.

Almost everyone I've ever known - especially as a child - has been a Christian. You'd think that one person would have a good reason for their belief, wouldn't you? But I haven't heard one.

So I must say that I'm a bit skeptical of that "critical examination of beliefs." Different people do come to different conclusions, true, but are those conclusions justified? I'd need some convincing of that.

Thanks for the comment!