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.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore