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New Study Links Racism and Conservative Beliefs with Low IQ

New Study Links Racism and Conservative Beliefs with Low IQ

A new study finds a correlation between conservative beliefs, racism and low IQ. LiveScience has a write-up based on communications with the principal author, Professor Gordon Hodson, of Brock University in Ontario. The paper itself is currently in press for the journal, Psychological Science, according to Hodson’s university web page. A previous study by Hodson’s group found a link between between less-educated people and higher incidences of prejudice.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this story will be emailed far and wide. Subject lines might include “liberals shown to be smarter than conservatives,” “Tea Party scientifically proven to be Ku Klux Klan in disguise,” and so forth. Who can blame you? A major conservative stereotype appears to have been validated.

Before I jump on the bandwagon, though, there are a couple caveats I’d like to consider. The first has to do with IQ.

These are the things IQ is not: immutable from birth, a measure of one’s overall mental processing power, objective and culturally universal.

These are the things IQ is: a measure of one’s ability to write IQ tests.

Let me put it another way. IQ is not a measure of one’s “innate” intellectual ability, or one’s “maximum potential.” But it can be a useful indicator of how well-developed one’s reasoning skills are. Call it critical thinking ability. Critical thinking can be strengthened with practice — it’s not something you simply have or don’t have. And I do think critical thinking actually is relevant to the questions of both prejudice and political ideology.

Caveat the second: correlation is not equal to causation. I’m going to court controversy a bit by throwing racial prejudice in with conservatism, since they’re both examples of beliefs rather than reasoning ability. So, the study shows that the same people who do poorly on IQ tests (or, as I would interpret it, those that are weak in certain types of critical thinking) are also more likely to hold certain beliefs about the world (that certain ethnicities are undesirable, that adherence to authority is a virtue).

Does this mean that people with weaker reasoning skills are naturally drawn to these viewpoints? Hodson implied that less intelligent people might find a simplistic, black-and-white view of the world easier to grasp. “Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order. Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice.”

But there are other possibilities. Maybe the conservative beliefs and poor test performances are both the effects of some other cause. Hodson’s team controlled for education and socioeconomic status, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of some other confounding variable.

Or maybe it’s these beliefs that hamper one’s critical thinking skills. Or it could even be a combination of all of the above. This is what I lean towards and I’ll explain why.

A few years ago, I was teaching mathematics in a semi-private Aboriginal school in Central Canada. I met a first-time teacher there in his forties, a former chef who was struggling to run a classroom for the first time. I took on somewhat of a mentorship role towards him, but as he became more comfortable around me, I felt less comfortable around him. He said nothing overt, but I felt like I was picking up on some latent prejudices.

One day, towards the end of a staff lunch at a nearby restaurant, he and I happened to be heading towards the door together. I made a meaningless chit-chat comment that “afternoon classes will be starting soon.” He responded with a trace of venom, “Well, those hags don’t seem to be in any rush.”

It’s hard to convey the feeling of that moment. These were my friends and colleagues, women I liked and respected. In one brief comment he not only showed contempt for some co-workers he barely knew, but simultaneously dismissed all women, implying that they hold no value if they are no longer desirable as sexual objects. I’ve never forgotten it: the first time I experienced meaningless hate first-hand. Misogyny, like all forms of prejudice, is an ugly, ugly thing.

When I talked to a friend about this later, I realized this one-time teacher’s problem (he was terminated not long after) was an inability to take responsibility for his own failures. He bashed his female colleagues, though they were more competent and deserving of being there than he was. He didn’t know how to teach and was too dead-set in his ways to learn, but he blamed the students since he hated Aboriginal people to begin with.

If you ask me, it’s not simply that stupid people are easily drawn to conservative and racist beliefs. It’s that this view of the world is addictive. It’s easier to be the martyr than to take a hard, honest look at yourself. Anyone can improve their critical faculties through practice. But it’s an emotional effort as well as an intellectual one, particularly when you put your own beliefs to the test.

Far easier to get caught up in a cycle of self-justification. False but self-flattering beliefs encourage rationalization rather than deep introspection. In turn, undeveloped reasoning skills leave the reasoner susceptible to additional suspect beliefs. Like any addiction, it strengthens over time by working as a positive feedback loop.

Rather than writing our political opponents off as terminally unenlightened then, maybe we should be thinking about how to more effectively teach people from a young age to hold all claims up to critical scrutiny, including — no, especially those related to the beliefs they hold most dear. Whatever our political orientation, in fact, I think many of us could benefit from such an exercise.

Related stories:

Some in GOP Push Back Against Racism. But is the Party Listening?

Canadian Conservatives Ignore, Censor, Bully and Threaten Critics

Two Very Different Responses From Republican Leaders On Racist Emails

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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337 comments

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10:38PM PDT on Jul 29, 2013

People do not think critically of their long-held and most cherished beliefs because they fear the consequences of doing so. So they remain in the security of their environment. People who do challenge and reject the status quo are shunned; they become outcasts.

5:20PM PDT on Apr 8, 2013

It's a good thing that teacher was fired. Why did he teach there in the first place if he hates all the teachers and the students?

3:23AM PDT on Apr 4, 2013

The founder of the University of Nigeria believed that there was need to train Nigerians locally, and sufficient in number for the formidable task of information and guiding contemporary and future generations. On the basis of this philosophy, the University had as one of its original curricula a degree offering in communication education.visit unn.edu.ng

7:05PM PST on Jan 9, 2013

I really like this article, but not for the reasons some may think. I love that the writer talks about racism/sexism/etc can be such an easy cop out for people that do not want to look inside themselves and admit their own failings. It wouldn't surprise me if that lead to stunted intellectual growth. I do believe that liberal thinking encourages one to question, to criticise, to always be examining ourselves in relationship to the world. There are those of us who work every day to be better people, whatever your political stance, not just diverting from prejudice but doing the work of understanding *why* those prejudice exist, I think, builds your intellect. You build your mind, your heart and open yourself to the world you live in, rather than being prejudiced and hateful, closing yourself off from the world.

3:35PM PDT on Aug 8, 2012

@ Curtis G - I can see your point, but "fundamental compassion and tolerance in liberal thinking"? I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I witness a sanctimonious liberal shouting down a conservative comment, or reduces a debate to juvenile attempts at humour and attacks on the speaker. Being so very sure of the superiority of their own opinions places many liberals in the same category of closed minded intolerance as the conservatives they ridicule. I think the problem here is that the Brock study has attempted to apply empirical conclusions to a subjective topic like political views. Hardly a valid conclusion, considering the historical variability in the definition of "liberal" and "conservative".

8:43PM PDT on Aug 5, 2012

I think there are two sides of the ball to this:

There are those who really do desire to think in simpler terms & prefer the security of status quo; Then there are those who are intuitive enough to see a gain in taking it up as an office & platform.

The latter of these seem intelligent enough, but they see no problem in leaving a legacy as a public face of conservative bigotry, so long as they get to wear a nice suit & make the right salary. But given the expense of such personal dignity, I would still question their IQ.

9:25PM PDT on May 1, 2012

@Robert K. Right on, green *.

1:01PM PDT on May 1, 2012

Jasper B's comment about Hitler being a liberal is proof of the inferior thinking ability of conservatives. He probably drools while reading blogs like NewsMax and Stormfront. Just because Nazi stands for National Socialist doesn't make it left wing. Communists aren't liberals, far from it. They generally (when nationwide like China or the USSR) are very conservative, and Hitler was so far right that only the Tea Party stooges would be comfortable under him. He was a fascist and fascism is the doctrine of merging the state and the corporations to keep the people down. Recognize today's Republican party? If not, your IQ is probably lower than your age.

The last true conservative in office was Goldwater who actually had some good ideas and cared about the common guy. How I miss that.

Has anyone heard a conseervative pol tell the truth about anything? They're so dishonest that when one of them says he loves his family I start thinking the family should run away ASAP.

7:32AM PST on Feb 16, 2012

No surprises there then :-(

10:34AM PST on Feb 7, 2012

Well, no real surprise, although it's rather generalised and all encompassing. I can certainly see that Conservatives tend to like 'Law and Order' of their own variety and prefer to have simple instructions and systems to follow; think ronald regan; crikey, think twiglet bush!
On the other hand, they are clever, devious and slick enough to be able to steal elections and to think up a good lie on the spur and on the fly.
It is clearly statistically the case that academics and artists tend towards liberal because they are able to understand more complicated reasoning and arguments.
I think there are several repugs who post on here who illustrate the concept.

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