Recently, Onraet, van Hiel et al. published a meta-analysis on the relation between cognitive ability and right-wing ideological attitudes. They concluded that right-wingers are less intelligent. What do they exactly say? And more importantly, Is it true?
TL;DR If what you mean by conservatism is what the authors of the meta-analysis mean by conservatism, yes. The literature concludes that there is an inverse relation between IQ and what they measure as conservatism, and there is little evidence of publication bias. The thing is, there is little relation between what they call conservatism and what philosophers and conservative theorists call conservatism. Also, there seems to be a lot of overlap between what they measure and social conservatism. For what is known in the literature as economic conservatism (what should be economic liberalism in the classical liberal sense) is actually related to higher IQ. Also, what follows does not mean that the group thought as polar opposite of conservatism, progressives, are better, unprejudiced thinkers. A followup post studying progressive psychology will appear here at some point. Furthermore, if you consider yourself an intelligent conservative, your existence doesn’t disprove this study. It talks about a tendency, and it talks about moderate effects (r~.23), not that every single conservative is below 100 IQ.
Just to frame what follows (And expliciting priors), I am not particularly right-wing friendly (just see me claiming the political Right is intellectually empty) , but I’m not a leftist either. But then, I may have peculiar concepts of what right wing is. The result of the meta-analysis seemed reasonable to me based on informal knowledge of political groups and people from the real world (e.g. TV, internet, real life). Since I’m smart, I’m expecting beliefs and attitudes that I do not hold to be associated with less intelligence (And I’m prepared to change my beliefs if contradictions in that are found). Given that I also was familiar with some of the literature on this, my prior is set to ‘Yes, conservatives are less intelligent’. That said, let’s see the paper.
They first say that much attention has been paid to different models of how psychological traits affect ideology: we have intergroup conflict, anxiety and threat, social identity concerns, competiton for dominance and resources, empathy, out-group dehumaization or disgust sensitivity. But in the Handbook of Social Psychology there is no mention of cognitive ability! There is just discussion of cognitive styles: need for closure or structure, but not intelligence. Why was this excluded? Maybe for being too politically incorrect, they wonder.
All of these factors are arguably important correlates of ideological attitudes and prejudice, but what about cognitive abilities? It is possible that contemplating these relations is considered unsavoury, contentious or overly controversial, encouraging researchers to underplay links between, for instance, ability and ideology (e.g. Block & Block, 2006; Fraley, Grifﬁn , Belsky & Roisma n, 2012), with such possibly considered ‘impolite ’ for academic discussion (Hodson, 2014). Moreover, there exist strong doubts in the ﬁeld about whether mental abilities are actually relevant contributors to the outcomes we seek to explain. For instance, Duarte et al. (in press) opine that, based on their reading of the literature, the data do ‘…not yield a consistent liberal advantage [in abilities], even a small one’.
Indeed, some scholars have argued that individuals withlower cognitive skills are relatively ill-equipped to process complex and new social information and to understand constantly changing societal contexts. Therefore, they are more likely to stick to what is presently known and considered acceptable, rather than being open-minded and appreciating multidimension al perspectives (Deary et al., 2008; Heaven, Ciarrochi & Leeson, 2011; McCourt, Bouchard, Lykken, Tellegen & Keyes, 1999; Stankov, 2009). By emphasizing societal traditions, the preservation of the status quo and strict group boundaries, ideologies endorsing resistance to social change, that is, right-wing ideologies (Jost et al., 2003), should be particularly appealing to those with lower cognitive abilities (e.g. Heaven et al., 2011; Keiller, 2010; Stankov, 2009). According to this theoretical perspective, therefore, right-wing ideologies provide well-structured and ordered views about society and intergroup relations, thereby psychologically minimizing the complexity of the social world. Theoretically, therefore, those with fewer cognitive resources drift towards right-wing conservative ideologies in an attempt to increase psychological control over their context.
Speciﬁcally, the CHC model proposed three levels: g is the highest level, representing general cognitive ability. Underlying g are nine primary broad domains who each contribute to the higher-order g-factor. These nine primary domains are: ﬂuid reasoning (Gf), the broad ability to reason and solve novel problems; comprehension–knowledge ability (Gc), static abilities based on one’s previously acquired knowledge; short-term memory (Gsm), the ability to encode, maintain and manipulate information in the immediate situation; long-term storage and retrieval (Glr), the ability to store and retrieve information in long-term memory; visual–spatial processing (Gv), the ability to perceive, generate, store and retrieve visual and spatial information; auditory processing (Ga), abilities involved in detecting and interpreting sounds; cognitive processing speed (Gs), the ability to quickly and ﬂuently perform relatively simple cognitive tasks; reading and writing (Grw), individual’s depth and breadth of reading and writing knowledge and skills; and ﬁnally, quantitative knowledge (Gq), the individual’s depth and breadth of quantitative or mathematical knowledge and skills.
They did consider only studies with no data overlap (to avoid double counting findings). In this meta-analysis they included 82 unique samples, with n=94398 participants, which is a reasonably high number.
To be sure of their findings, they tried not one, but four methods to try to find if they had publication bias in their dataset (funnel plots, the trim-and-fill methods, Egger’s linear regression procedure, and outlier impact analysis). Out of this I’m only familiar with the funnel plots. They chart effect size and standard error, and if there is no publication bias, they should look symmetric: errors should be truly random, not bised one ways or another. And they seem to be random, altough in the discussion they go deeper, concluding that altough one of four the tests could suggest bias, a more careful analysis leads to the conclusion that there is not.
And what have they found?
That yes, conservatives (as they defined conservatives) are less intelligent
The first main finding of our study was that people with greater cognitive resources are more likely to adhere to left-wing beliefs and tend to be less prejudiced, whereas those
having lower cognitive abilities are more likely to endorse right-wing beliefs and be more prejudiced (average effect sizes of r = .20, 95% CI [ 0.23, 0.17]; and r = .19, 95% CI [ 0.23, 0.16], respectively). The confidence interval reported provides considerable support for the notion that these findings are both meaningful and replicable. We further assessed the validity of our meta-analytical estimates, with sensitivity analyses addressing the impact of both publication bias and outliers/influential studies
At some point, they make explicit what it has always seemed to me one of the interesting potential consecuences of these studies: Can we debunk ideologies using cognitive science? They say that this has caused interest in this field, but that such thing rests on false premises. Pace the authors, ideological debunking based on cognitive ability does not seem prima facie suspect (But it could be shown to be bunk itself). Higher intelligence seems correlated to all sorts of positive variables and grasping of factual knowledge. On at least other one important philosophical question, that of the existence of God, intelligence is correlated with lower belief (Zuckerman et al. 2013). Maybe it’s not that higher intelligence enables you to better understand the value system you hold, (and that such process stops you from holding certain values as true) but just that, say, higher intelligence affects values via a different channel. It is an interesting field of study, indeed:
An important reason for this long-standing interest in the cognitive basis of ideology lies in an attempt to uncover the scientific inaccuracy or invalidity of certain ideologies, and the superiority of other ideologies (Durrheim, 1997). Specifically, ideologies might seem inferior when they attract less intelligent people, whereas ideologies that attract intelligent people may appear to be more ‘correct’. To be clear, any attempt to show whether right-wing or left-wing ideologies are accurate or valid on the basis of the level of cognitive ability of their adherents is based on false premises and certainly not the goal of our present synthesis. Moreover, we appreciate that this issue is a very delicate
and controversial one (Dhont & Hodson, 2014; Hodson, 2014) that, for this reason, speaks to the need for a cumulative-science approach (i.e. meta-analysis). Moreover,
we would like to stress that, although right-wing ideological attitudes relate to conservative and right-wing political party affiliation (e.g. Altemeyer, 1996; Jost et al., 2003), our findings cannot be generalized to party identification. In other words, the current findings not necessarily imply that adher ents of right-wing parties have lower cognitive abilities than adherents of left-wing parties.
Then, not every type of cognitive ability is equally correlated with their measures, but all of the analysed ones showed negative correlations with their measures of right-wingism
The strongest effect size was obtained for comprehension–knowledge (r = .23), which refers to abilities based on previously acquired knowledge and skills valued by one’s culture. It includes general verbal information, language development, lexical knowledge, listening and communication abilities and grammar sensitivity (Schneider & McGrew, 2012). The effect size was considerably smaller for fluid abilities (r = .13), referring to abilities to solve unfamiliar problems and abstract reasoning, and for short-term memory (r = .12), referring to abilities to encode, maintain and manipulate information in the immediate situation.
These findings corroborate the studies of Heaven et al. (2011) and Kemmelmeier (2008) who found that verbal abilities are more strongly related to ideological attitudes com-
pared with numerical and mathematical reasoning. As noted by Heaven et al. (2011), ideologies are relevant to verbal narratives, arguments and point of views, but not directly to numerical abilities. Similarly, other researchers argue that ideology can be considered as a schema or a learned knowledge structure, including norms and values, beliefs and opinions (e.g. Fiske, Lau & Smith, 1990; Hamill, Lodge & Blake, 1985). Hence, this might explain why comprehension–knowledge abilities may be especially relevant in relatio-ship with ideology. […]
Whereas the effect of comprehension–knowledge ability is strongest, it is important to note that the other types of broad abilities (for which we obtained enough studies) also yielded negative and significant effects. This finding further attests to the robustness of this general relationship. However, on the basis of the present state of the literature, we cannot make conclusive statements about all types of cognitive abilities. First, studies on cognitive ability and ideology and prejudice did not include every type of ability (e.g. to our knowledge, no study investigated auditory processing or quantitative knowledge). Second, for other types of cognitive ability, most notably long-term memory, processing speed and visual–spatial processing, we found only a few studies, which elicited potential statistical power issues in our analysis. Hence, we should be cautious not to over-interpret the results for these specific abilities. Future research administering a wide range of cognitive ability measures at the sametime can provide a more decisive answer to this intriguing question.
Then, not every measure of conservatism was equally related to cognitive ability, and finally that there was little evidence of publication bias.
They also present some alternative accounts for their findings: one is social desirability (people may respond in a socially acceptable way, hiding what they really think), but they reject this, and the other is education and SES (SocioEconomic Status), the idea that maybe a higher education ‘liberal atmosphere’ tends to make students more liberal, but no:
Most importantly, a range of studies reported that the relationships of cognitive ability with right wing ideology and prejudice remain significant after statistically controlling for educational level and SES (Deary et al.,2008; Hodson & Busseri, 2012; Kanazawa, 2010; McCourtet al., 1999; Schoon et al., 2010; Sidanius & Lau, 1989).
Moreover, significant associations of cognitive ability with right-wing ideological attitudes and prejudice have also been obtained in samples of children and young adolescents who have not yet experienced higher education (e.g. Costello & Hodson, 2014) and among university student samples (e.g. Choma et al., 2014; Keiller, 2010) where education levels are largely equivalent across participants. In sum, whereas education and SES might, to some extent, explain the relationship between cognitive ability and right-wing ideological attitudes and prejudice, it cannot serve as a single and exhaustive explanation.
Limitations, and the importance of defining your concepts
In a last section, they acknowledge some limitations of the literature:
Most research has been devoted to studying social conservatism, and not what they dub economic conservatism or “economic-hierarchical right-wing attitudes”. Here they mix the concepts of Social Dominance Orientation and preference for free market policies. The implicit reasoning of many researchers is that conservatives have a preference for inequality, and that preference for markets must be somehow related to that. But so far, the literature, they say, is not clear on whether high intelligence is correlated with preference for markets (though it seems so), and not clearly correlated with SDO
A recent study by Oskarsson et al. (2014) reported that general cognitive ability is positively related to right-wing economic attitudes. Similarly, Carl (2014, 2015) showed that cognitive ability was positively associated with fiscally and economically conservative beliefs. These studies thus seem to suggest that the relationship between cognitive ability and economic–hierarchical attitudes is distinct from the relationship between cognitive ability and social–cultural attitudes. However, based on the few available empirical studies on the relationship between cognitive ability and economic–hierarchical attitudes, we cannot make strong claims about the strength and direction of this relationship. Therefore, we encourage more systematic research employing a wide range of measures in the economic–hierarchical domain in order to understand the role of cognitive abilities in the development of economic–hierarchical attitudes
If you take SDO and economic conservatism as a package, nothing seems to be clear, but I think that as of today, the literature does point in the direction that higher intelligence is actually correlated with higher preference for markets, see paragraph after the next quote.
They also point out to the effects of culture on ideology,
According to the cultural mediation hypothesis (Woodley, 2010, 2011), we could find different patterns of results in other societies. More specifically, Woodley asserts that individuals with higher cognitive ability are more likely to be aware of the advantages of adhering to norms and beliefs dominant in one’s society and hence will shift their own attitudes and beliefs towards this normative centre. As a result, and in line with the present findings, in societies with rather liberal norms (such as most Western societies), individuals with greater cognitive skills are predicted to be generally more left-wing. However, in societies characterized by more conservative and rightist norms and belief systems, one could expect those individuals to shift to the right side of the spectrum. We know of one study that supports this interesting possibility. Katz (1990) reported that among White South African students, a group characterized by conservative views at that time, greater cognitive ability was associated with more conservative and traditionalistic views. However, given that this is the only study of its kind and that its findings did not apply to all ability tasks used, we recommend caution in interpreting these results. In sum, in order to provide a conclusive answer to the question of whether the present findings are context specific and typical for Western societies or whether
the obtained relationships can be considered universal, we need more elaborate research on the relationship of cognitive ability with ideology and prejudice in culturally diverse societal contexts.
While that study is cited, there are some recent ones that do not. We have Mollestrom & Seim 2014 for Sweden, Pan & Xu 2015 for China, and Rindermann et al. 2012 for Brazil. They all point in the direction that what the literature calls social liberalism and economic conservatism are both associated with greater intelligence.
So being an authoritarian, dogmatic, xenophobe, racist, sexist, prejudiced and closedminded person is related to lower intelligence. Shocking. If conservatism were that, then they have truly found that conservatism is dumb. Whatever the definition of conservative, the fact remains that many people calling themselves conservatives also share the above traits. Interestingly, those are also shared by what would be called populists (those who hold socially conservative and economically progressive views).
I want to stress here again the importance of choosing well what you measure. We know that economic and social attitudes are different concepts. The naive view of using real world political ideologies (and not philosophical, refined ideologies) seemingly has lead the field of psychology to create categories that aren’t as much helpful (meaning that they don’t have micro-psychological foundations) as they should to discern reality, but there are exceptions. See Malka & Soto 2014, and Malka & Soto 2015. In the first one, they document that high need for security and certainty predicts both economic leftism (welfare provision, government intervention in the economy) and social conservatism (as already described), and in the second one they propose a model to explain why actually existing political parties are not aligned this way, arguing that high political engagement leads one to match the socially accepted ideological blocks. The model is incomplete: Why the parties are like that, in the first place? But it is a good start.
To finish, I want to address the problem of political bias in this meta-analysis. There is a growing concern in the psychology community about politics interfering with science, as there are almost no conservative psychologists, and calls have been made to correct this (Duarte et al. 2015), more here. You can see traces of bias in how conservatism and right-wingism are defined, in the names of the measures itself (Right Wing Authoritarianism), their definitions (See sec. 3 of the paper) and in the relative paucity of studies of leftist ideology, and even less in which the terms with the same overtones are used. Also, if one considers stereotypes (and it wouldn’t be hard to find studies that mix prejudice and stereotype, thus contaminating the meta-analysis findings), we find that Jussim’s work (see Duarte’s paper again) has found that they are in many cases accurate, therefore they should be prima facie associated to greater intelligence, and not be problematic at all. The field itself really does look like a huge hunt-the-conservatives enterprise from the outside.
But even taking this into account, the meta-analysis seems to hold water. To be fair, I don’t think that we could really say that conservatives tout court are dumber, as the best definition of conservatism (the philosophical one) has not been put to test, but informally, a sizable fraction of self-described conservatives do display the attributes studied in the paper. Intelligent conservatives have always seemed to me not conservative at all, but mostly clasically liberal.
What we can say, though, is that social conservatism, defined as the set of traits dealt with in the paper, is indeed associated with lower intelligence. Given the robustness of the correlates of cognitive ability, I don’t expect this finding to be overthrown by future research.
EDIT: Want to read more of this literature? To get a view of what many psychologists think of conservatives, begin with John T. Jost (or here), then you can read the papers linked in this blogpost, and examine papers those papers cite. Afterwards, you can use Google Scholar to serch for terms like “cognitive iq conservative liberal economic fiscal ideology politics”.
EDIT2: This post DOES NOT imply that progressives or other political groups are bias free, or that there is no such thing as left-wing authoritarianism. There is also literature on that, and we’ll return to it in future posts. So if you are a progressive, don’t infer that the low IQ-conservatism relation implies that you are bias free, not prejudiced, and so on.