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Low intelligence predicts social conservatism

Updated on July 21, 2013
They were evil, but were they stupid?
They were evil, but were they stupid?

A recent paper [1] has aroused a lot of controversy. Complaints about the quality of the work sound as if they are coming from people who think of themselves as right wing and consider the paper a personal attack from someone they never mat who has never heard of them. It seems the controversy stems partly from careless use of language and careless reading by supporters and critics rather than poor research.

The paper concludes that lower cognitive abilities in childhood, measured as lower general intelligence: a parameter called g , predicts greater prejudice and that this is mediated through endorsement of “right wing” ideologies, that is ideologies based on social conservatism and right-Wing authoritarianism (RWA) , and groups characterised by low contact with other groups. Low abilities in abstract reasoning predicted greater levels of RWA and greater levels of prejudice against homosexuals.

Unfortunately the authors tend to conflate social conservatism and RWA, which in occurs in all parties, with political conservatism and rightwing ideologies in general. The modifiers “social” and “Authoriarianism” tend to be omitted. This has led to a certain amount of confusion and misreading of the paper.

Are Right Wingers unintelligent

It is fair to say however that observations tend to support the notion that supporters of parties generally considered to be right wing or even fascist tend not to be the sharpest knives in the drawer: Vox Pop interviews with members of Britain's Extreme Nationalist parties and the asinine pronunciations of many prominent American Republican politicians

The impressions given by observations of right wing activity in the media may be valid or they may be a result of sampling bias. The pronouncements of Republican leaders may be cynically uttered in order to gain the support of a constituency they secretly despise, for as Altemeyer has pointed out [2] Authoritarian FOLLOWERS are radically different from Authoritarian LEADERS. In particular the Leaders are generally anything but unintelligent especially when it comes to establishing social dominance

Common sense suggests that highly prejudiced people may be intelligent or not. The paper in question [1] seems to indicate that lower levels of childhood intelligence predict higher levels of prejudice, but it is clear that some intelligent people have exhibited high levels of prejudice. Given that childhood intelligence may be adversely affected by poor nutrition, which is predominantly experienced by the poor, and that poorer people form the bulk of the population it seems likely that a majority of highly prejudiced people would exhibit low g.

One of the paradoxes of British politics is that Labour voters tend to agree with Labour's economic policies and the Conservative's social policies. The conflict is less extreme in the Tory party where voters tend to support Tory economic policy AND Tory social policy, though various cultural and demographic changes seem to be driving Tory voters slowly towards Labours social policies.

Hodson and Busseri do not claim that Right-Wingers are stupid, they claim that people who have low cognitive abilities tend to show high levels of prejudice. Hodson and Busseri's observe that all predictive effects are independent of socioeconomic status and education. The second part of their claim is that people with low cognitive abilities tend to be attracted to right wing ideologies, that s socially conservative ideologies based on right wing authoritarianism.

In support of this it has been observed that the most prejudiced places in the UK are working mens clubs, which are generally white, male and patronised by people whose parents were in lower income groups and who left school as early as possible with a sigh of relief ( This attitude to education is not confined to low income groups). The patrons of these organisations tended to vote for “left wing” parties which they saw as furthering their own interests. They also tend to be intensely socially conservative: It was not, generally speaking upper class people who indulged in “Queer bashing! In the 1960s or who took part in the Race Riots of 1958 and later “Paki Bashing”.

At the other end of the political spectrum (which is more like a horseshoe) higher status and better education tend to characterise the Tory party, but are by no means limited to it, and the party ideology, at least at the grass roots is socially conservative and based on RWA: the Conservative party is widely regarded (at least from outside) as the stupid party, though some Tories delight in anti-intellectualism, and considers itself the party of law and order and traditional values.

In summary therefore the British Left contains many who are socially conservative and high in rightwing authoritarianism. The leaders of these parties are largely the opposite and and get the support of their constituency because of their economic policy. The British Right also contains many socially conservative right-wing authoritarians but a historical belief in freedom ( In practice only for the rich or deserving) muffles and masks the authoritarianism, though the leaders tend to be more like the grass roots.

Hodson and Busseri found the same sort of results when looking at US data. It would seem therefore that their findings are not a result of cultural factors though given the similarity between US and UK culture ( which are both basically White Anglo Saxon Protestant ) the research needs to be replicated across a wider range of cultures.

Some criticisms of the research

Some of the criticisms made of [1] suggest the authors feel the paper is aimed at them and appear to distort the original paper, for example a review [3] of a review by Monbiot starts by claiming that the paper asserted “people with conservative beliefs are likely to be of low intelligence” which appears to be a gross simplification of the claims in the paper. At the end they concede Monbiot's remark that

There is plenty of research showing that low general intelligence in childhood predicts greater prejudice towards people of different ethnicity or sexuality in adulthood”

While saying the latter is that prejudice and stupidity are linked and that claim is something that does not need research!! The writer is therefore denying the link between Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Conservatism and Prejudice towards outgroups, which seems to be well established, for example [2].

A less trivial criticism is [4]. Briggs criticises the fact that the two datasets in [1] measure similar but different abilities but does not say how important that is, notes losses in the long term tracking of the participants, and wonders why Math and Reading test scores were not used (As I recall these tests would introduce cultural biases). Briggs, a professor of statistical science, criticises some of the questions used to establish authoritarianism, but seems unaware of the idea that some questions are designed to test for Authoritarianism and others are decoys.

The criticism in [5] Again ignores the difference between left and right wing social and economic policy and seems to be attacking first Monbiot's review [6], after conceding Monbiot‘s summary is a fair representation of the paper, then a a statement made by Monbiot which the writer claims, in my view unfairly, imputes conservative economic ideas to those of low intelligence who are racist (Hodson and Busseri explicitly say they focussed on socio cultural conservatism not economic conservatism): it seems that Monbiot is claiming that low g socially conservative right wing authoritarians are being manipulated and duped by a wealthy elite for their own ends. Monbiot's statement is indeed nothing to do with [1] but this does not invalidate the research there.

The writer's comment that the BNP is, apart from a taint of racism, a left wing party in many ways, just like the Nazi party in the 1930s and later.

The Wrap

Some criticisms of the original paper also mix criticism of Monbiot's review, and the criticism of the statistics by Briggs appears to show ignorance of psychological methodology, and attracted some adverse comments [4]. Some critics validly pointed out that social conservatism and right wing authoritarianism are also characteristics of the British Labour party. Many also noted the link between stupidity and prejudice, while denying the link between prejudice and socially rightwing ideologies.

The controversy over this paper suggests the authors have struck a nerve with an electrified drill. The conclusions of the paper, that low cognitive abilities are related to higher levels of prejudice seem to be accepted. The notion that people with low cognitive abilities are attracted to ideologies that are socially conservative and authoritarian and that these ideologies mediate prejudice is challenged but the challenges seem to me to be based on misreadings of the paper.

In short and at the risk of over simplifying to be able to say this in plain language

The paper claims, if I understand it correctly that

  1. Unintelligent people tend to be racist and homophobic.

  2. Unintelligent people tend to be drawn to socially conservative and authoritarian ideologies

  3. These ideologies tend to make unintelligent people more racist and homophobic.

Note the word “tend” in all these. There are highly intelligent people who are racist, homophobic and drawn to socially conservative and authoritarian ideologies. Reference [5] confounds the terms “unintelligent” and “stupid” but teasing out the difference between the two and working out how someone with excellent cognitive abilities can also be stupid is a problem for another time and place.

Further reading

1] Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact, Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri Psychological Science XX(X) 1–9

[2] Altemeyer, B. (2006). The authoritarians. Cambridge.

[3] The Libertarian View

[4] Criticism by Professor William Briggs

[5] Scientific Paper: Conservatives Are Stoopid So There!

[6] The right's stupidity spreads, enabled by a too-polite left


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    • AlexK2009 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      And you have not explain why so many voted Republican when it seems so clearly agains their interests.

      The findings show people with low cognitive abilities exhibit higher levels of prejudice

      "Right Wing" ideologies and parties are collectively more prejudiced than "left Wing" though the authoritarian/libertarian divide tends to cut across the left right divide.

      People with higher levels of prejudice are attracted to parties and ideologies that espouse that prejudice.

      The rest follows

    • Patriot Quest profile image

      Wayne Joel Bushong 

      6 years ago from America

      The ignorant are attracted to the conservative side? hahahaha, then explain why the 50 MILLION on welfare voted for Obama? You people amaze me!

    • AlexK2009 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      PatriotQuest. I did not say all conservatives were stupid and the finer points of my argument appear to have passed you by.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • Patriot Quest profile image

      Wayne Joel Bushong 

      6 years ago from America

      yeppers, us ole dumb conservatives down here in the South are having a hard time with 5.3% unemployment, the housing boom, and new car sales. This dang ole nasty oil just keeps pumping out of the ground and with the excess money in that stock market thingamajicky going through the roof we ignorant sonofaguns dont rightly know what to do next...........ingnorance is horrible,..........I played golf at the country club all weekend, ate at PF Changs, and took my wife out one night to the casino.........hows your super intellegent liberal life working out for you???????????? worst hub I ever read!

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      6 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      It's also true that it's not necessarily what you say but how you say it that counts.

    • AlexK2009 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Dead right swordsbane.

      Left and right are only one political division. Another one is

      Authoritarian/Libertarian and it cuts across the Left-Right divide.

      Sometimes a simple solution is needed but people tend to favour elegance over reality and practicality and the complex beautiful over what works. I recall one place I worked where a programmer told the team leader "I love to create extremely complex solutions to problems". If any one said that to me and I was their team lead I would be looking to transfer them to a team run by someone who annoyed me.

    • swordsbane profile image

      William Grant 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin

      AlexK2009: Having said what I said.... I don't think any idea is good or bad because of where it came from. Communism, Fascism, Socialism, etc didn't gain traction with the masses because they were a bunch of dumb ideas. There's the gem of truth in all of them. I've seen dumb people say some pretty smart things and I've seen smart people step on their crank and say monumentally stupid things. Sometimes a simple (dumb) solution is called for. Sometimes you need a pretty complex one. The trouble with the right and left is that they haven't figured out how to tell the difference.

    • AlexK2009 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thanks swordsbane.

      It has been noted that Right and Left at the extremes resemble each other closely. This may be because leaders like power in both cases: any "ism" in my view tends to totalitarianism.

      And your point about Religious people not being right wing but being racist or homophobic shows that Right wing Authoritarianism (perhaps it should just be authoritarianism ) and social conservatism are found in left and right wing parties.

    • AlexK2009 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Thanks someonewhoknows.

      I agree with your first point, which says there are different and largely decoupled types of intelligence. As I understand it g is needed for these other types of intelligence. Without good cognitive abilities for example you probably cannot read body language which seems to me to be vital for emotional intelligence. Also one can be smart academically and useless in everyday life.

    • swordsbane profile image

      William Grant 

      6 years ago from Wisconsin

      It's really very simple. It's a narrow distinction, but "right wing" ideologies are simple. They are nationalism, patriotism, us/them attitudes, freedom, etc... These simple ideas attract people who don't think well enough to know that solutions to complex problems are not to be found in simple solutions. Those who settle for the easy fix will like simple ideologies and not think past them. "right wing" ideologies do not encourage people to think. They encourage people to emote. Right wing political rallies are geared towards emotional responses, not critical thinking about the issues.

      Don't get me wrong... I think "left wing" ideologies to be elitist, smug, class distinctive and generally OVER-thought.

      People with critical thinking skills who USE them aren't left or right wing. They are either somewhere in the middle or they are something else entirely. Smart.... stupid... it's not about that. It's about people who either think things through or decide it's too hard.

      I don't know about the whole racist/homophobe thing. Religious people tend to be more homophobic than others, and they aren't exclusively right wing.... not even mostly, and racists exist everywhere. On the other hand, the smarter you are, the less chance you will be either racist or homophobic. Beyond that, I got nothing.

    • someonewhoknows profile image


      6 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Hi there Alex,

      I fail to see how intellectual brain power or " g" - (general intelligence) is a measure of social stupidity or the Emotional Quotient of an individual or group of individuals. Emotional Intelligence and logical reasoning can be mutually exclusive.

      One can be logical and have great math skills and still be emotionally inept when it comes to social issues and money.

      In other words.

      One can see social ills as being a result of the lack of income and or poor diet. However if, income is the reason for a poor diet then we need to increase incomes or lower inflation because interest on debt raises inflation and lowers spendable income over time automatically. Is,that socially conservative on the part of the banks or stupidity on the part of the The banking system or economically smart on their part? It,all depends on what their motives are doesn't it! Can they be socially liberal and economically conservative at the same time?

      Personal opinions on the reasoning behind the lack of income can be subjective or objective depending on the motives of all involved. whether it's laziness or a simple lack of available work that can sustain those individuals and their families whether or not they have children and what can be done to rectify the situation depends on the motives of all involved in the decision making process.

      There is an old saying - "Those with the Gold Rules"

      Well,here is a another saying - "Those who live by Golden Rules are blessed" or as the bible would say " Do unto other's as you would have them do unto you" as one of the Ten Commandments that R W A should know by heart at least in the so - called bible belt in America anyway.


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