I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.
–John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” Fraser’s Magazine (1862).
Loyal reader Jim Pettit (who really should blog more frequently in my opinion, which is of course extremely true and 100% correct, always, in every respect, and at all times), has brought to our attention some excellent new research in our primary area of expertise, Conservative Personality Disorder. Via LiveScience:
Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice
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.
Well, knock me over with a feather! We have known for some time that bigotry is more common among wingnuts than other groups: this is why Republicans currently campaigning for President these days are constantly signaling to their base that they, too, are unrepentant racists and homophobes, like that’s a good thing. (And it is, if one seeks their votes.) And anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex who has ever watched Fox News knows that there is something going on with conservatism with respect to at least education, if not intelligence as measured by IQ tests. What’s interesting about this research is that it shows empirically that these relationships exist, are measurable, and are interrelated.
The researchers turned to two studies of citizens in the United Kingdom, one that has followed babies since their births in March 1958, and another that did the same for babies born in April 1970. The children in the studies had their intelligence assessed at age 10 or 11; as adults ages 30 or 33, their levels of social conservatism and racism were measured.
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.
I am familiar with the finding that contact with members of out-groups reduces prejudice: I cannot put my finger on it today, but I remember reading years ago about research that found kids from conservative Christian homes, who were raised to hate and fear gays, showed a marked decrease in homophobia once they (a) went away to college, and (b) personally interacted on a regular basis with lesbians and gays. However, we have not seen this recent research demonstrating that contact with out-groups is “mentally challenging and cognitively draining,” and wonder whether political identity is implicated here as well. One of the reasons I absolutely love New York City is because of its extraordinary diversity: I am exposed every single day to people whose backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexuality could not be more different than my own. And yet, not only do I welcome the experience, I find it absolutely exhilarating. It is a privilege (in the best sense of that word) to know so many people with whom I would never have crossed paths if I hadn’t run screaming from the suburbs of the United States of Generica and made my home here. I see the same thing reflected in the physical environment as well: seeing some strange new art in a gallery as I walk by, unusual items for sale in a store window, striking architecture new or old, even avant garde fashion (“Holy shit! Those are shoes?!“) broadens my thinking and lifts my mood considerably. Same thing with foreign travel, food, and novel experiences in general (unless they suck, of course).
That is not to say such experiences are not “mentally challenging” for me. Indeed, if I understand the term correctly, that is why I get so much joy out of them in the first place. But “cognitively draining”? Unless that term has an unusual meaning in the context of this type of research, this liberal finds exactly the opposite.
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.
“There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals,” Hodson said.
But not that many.
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.”
This is an odd way to put it: “trouble grasping the complexity of the world.” No one grasps the complexity of the world. I think a more useful distinction is whether one is perfectly comfortable with all of the inherent uncertainty we necessarily accept if we’re interested in grasping the truth about reality, versus having a pathological need for certainty regardless of whether or not a given belief is true. In other words:
“It doesn’t matter to me if I’m 100% sure. It only matters to me whether I’m right.”
-as opposed to-
“It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m right. It only matters to me that I’m 100% sure.”
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.
Prejudice is of particular interest because understanding the roots of racism and bias could help eliminate them, Hodson said. For example, he said, many anti-prejudice programs encourage participants to see things from another group’s point of view. That mental exercise may be too taxing for people of low IQ.
That mental exercise may be too taxing for people of low empathy. As I explored in more detail here, pronounced empathy deficit appears to be a crucial dimension to conservatism, one that is under-studied, under-reported, and overlooked as the most obvious explanation for what we observe. It’s made plain as day in the “insult” bleeding heart liberal, the standard conservative epithet referring to all those assholes and losers who genuinely care about the suffering of other people. (And cats.) I mean, I think it goes without saying that people who care about others are most certainly not the kind of people we want having anything to do with our government. (The only people who should be in control of government are corporations, obviously.)
But it is nevertheless always heartening to see real, solid, honest-to-goodness scientific work being done in this field, and it is especially gratifying when it supports the Palace’s current working hypothesis of Conservative Personality Disorder. In this regard, the new research implicates at least 10 of the 19 symptom clusters characteristic of the syndrome, including:
-hierarchical worldview: opposed to equality in principle; rationalizes and justifies social Darwinism, typically along racial, ethnic and/or gendered lines; [racism]
-willful ignorance: dogmatic; [dumbassity, and valuing certainty over truth]
-irrationality: anti-intellectualism; illogical; [dumbassitude, and valuing certainty over truth]
-tribalism: obsession with strict in-group/out-group delineation, typically with respect to race, class, ethnicity, sex, religion, cultural practices, immigration status, gender, and/or sexual orientation; avoids, marginalizes and demonizes out-groups; fixation on “purity,” usually in connection with race or sexual behavior; believes out-groups are inherently, profoundly, and fundamentally different from and inferior to in-group members, and denies or rejects obvious commonalities; [racism and homophobia]
-sense of entitlement: hyper-defensive of unearned privilege; [racism]
-misogyny: homophobic; [homophobia]
-amorality: markedly unconcerned with the welfare or suffering of others, especially out-groups; [racism and homophobia]
-rigidity: actively avoids exposure to diversity, such as people from different cultural backgrounds, foreign travel, or trying new foods; [racism and homophobia]
-limited dimensionality of thought: poor critical thinking ability; anxious and unnerved by cognitive ambiguity, and highly motivated to eliminate it by reducing complex real-world phenomena to discrete dualities; simplistic; [dumbassishness, and valuing certainty over truth]
-stunted self-awareness: aggressively defensive of one’s own culture, subculture, family structure, or way of life as objectively superior to all others despite (a) limited exposure to meaningfully diverse alternatives, (b) plainly evident personal anger, poor relationships, bitterness, and persistent unhappiness that no reasonable person would wish to emulate, (c) refusal to acknowledge other practices and points of view as valid, positive, or potentially beneficial, and (d) nevertheless attempting to compel all others to emulate one’s “superior” culture, subculture, family structure or way of life through legislative action, ballot initiatives, and/or social opprobrium; [racism and homophobia]
There are other CPD symptom clusters that one could argue are implicated in this new research as well, such as self-righteousness (“judgmental; hypercritical, scornful and disdainful of out-group “others”) and sadism (“pronounced empathy deficit”). And it’s true that many of the symptom clusters I’ve left out share some overlap with the ones I’ve listed here. However, at their core, the missing clusters center more around other factors (such as the aforementioned empathy deficit) than with intelligence, racism or homophobia per se.
So we are heading right back to the Palace lab — it seems we’re onto something, and we’ve got work to do if we ever hope to cure this horrible disease. Kitties are counting on us.