Thursday, February 09, 2012

Are Right-Wingers Really As Dumb As We Think They Are?

The link between intelligence and prejudice has been little researched and scarcely features in theoretical or empirical accounts of intergroup evaluations. Our synthesis demonstrates that cognitive ability plays a substantial role not only in predicting prejudice, but also in predicting its potential precursors: right-wing ideologies and authoritarian value systems, which can perpetuate social inequality by emphasizing the maintenance of the status quo, and a lack of contact and experience with out-groups. Our analysis of two large-scale U.K. data sets established a predictive relation between childhood g (a latent factor of generalized intelligence) and adult prejudice, as well as an indirect effect of g on prejudice via conservative ideology; this indirect effect explained more than 90% of the relation between g and racism in three of the four analyses (see Table 2). Thus, conservative ideology represents a critical pathway through which childhood intelligence predicts racism in adulthood. In psychological terms, the relation between g and prejudice may stem from the propensity of individuals with lower cognitive ability to endorse more right-wing conservative ideologies because such ideologies offer a psychological sense of stability and order. By emphasizing resistance to change and inequality among groups, these ideologies legitimize and promote negative evaluations of out-groups.
"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, No. 23, February 2012
I read a piece in the British newspaper The Guardian yesterday, a column by George Monbiot, that linked to the study quoted above. Rather than discuss the study outright, Monbiot's point was, rather, to chastise what he called "too-polite liberals" for allowing a situation such as we have now, where conservatives can spew all sorts of nonsense and not be challenged for its verisimilitude by people of a different political ideology.
On both sides of the Atlantic, conservative strategists have discovered that there is no pool so shallow that several million people won't drown in it. Whether they are promoting the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the US, that man-made climate change is an eco-fascist-communist-anarchist conspiracy, or that the deficit results from the greed of the poor, they now appeal to the basest, stupidest impulses, and find that it does them no harm in the polls.
These are the perfect conditions for a billionaires' feeding frenzy. Any party elected by misinformed, suggestible voters becomes a vehicle for undisclosed interests. A tax break for the 1% is dressed up as freedom for the 99%. The regulation that prevents big banks and corporations exploiting us becomes an assault on the working man and woman. Those of us who discuss man-made climate change are cast as elitists by people who happily embrace the claims of Lord Monckton, Lord Lawson or thinktanks funded by ExxonMobil or the Koch brothers: now the authentic voices of the working class.
This description of our current state of affairs is, I think, spot on. Going all the way back to Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas?, the enigma for so many on the Left has been the willingness of voters to support a party and and set of policy preferences that run directly counter to their actual interests. The point, which is rarely discussed, seems clear enough to many: conservative politicians very often campaign using upon a set of policy priorities - whether cultural preferences on the one hand, or vague pledges of fealty to particular general social beliefs in economic freedom and socioeconomic mobility - that are abandoned once they are actually elected to office. The running sore in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is now facing a recall election for gutting the formerly progressive state's labor protections, despite winning on a ticket where this, his first and most important piece of legislation, was never even mentioned.

The mechanisms studied by the Canadian researchers were the complex of relationships among conservative ideology, prejudice, and intelligence, g, as determined in childhood through the use of standardized tests. Setting to one side my own personal questions regarding either the efficacy of such tests or the underlying idea that "intelligence" or "cognitive ability" is a thing that can be measured with any accuracy or that is a stable entity, using the standards outlined in the study (which, surprisingly, is available in its entirety online at the link above; there are internal links to the many studies the authors cite within the text as well, a rarity in my experience), it seems that the well-known high correlation between lower values for g and a greater tendency toward prejudice is often mediated by right-wing ideologies (defined for the sake of the study as "which are socially conservative and authoritarian", which beg as many questions as they answer; further down they do note that such ideologies tend toward the maintenance of the status quo and offer relief for certain levels of status anxiety). Political ideology, thus, is not so much a function of intelligence, but rather the way people with lower cognitive ability as represented by g take inchoate feelings and give them the shape of prejudice toward out-groups.

The authors note a correlation of almost 90% for the relationship among prejudice, the mediating function of political ideology and lower values for g.

Monbiot's column takes this information and wonders why we liberals are so polite. I, for one, long ago decided politeness served no function. Attempting to have a discussion, for instance, on global warming with someone who either denies it entirely or denies any role for human activity isn't possible. On this matter there is no room for "opinions". Just as people cannot have an "opinion" on the reality of gravity, even though the theoretical understanding of what gravity is hasn't been settled for over a century, global warming due to human industrial and related activities is not something a person can "believe" or "not believe". Or, to put it slightly differently, a person may indeed say he or she "does not believe" in global warming. My only response to such a person is global warming isn't a function of her, or anyone else's, beliefs. Such a person should be devoutly ignored.

The list of such things about which more people should simply cease discussing as if differences of opinion were relevant grows each and every day. The biological status of a fetus or embryo and therefore its demands upon our moral and legal consciences. The political ideology of the President of the United States (to say nothing of the place of his birth, his religious beliefs, and other sundry matters that have caused so much huffing and puffing on the right). Just yesterday, I read someone who wrote: "Though you may doubt the existence of a literal Adam, it seems far fetch, biblically, that he didn’t exist. It is actually easier to argue that he did then he didn”t. It is true that many people try to interpret ancient history as if they were written by 20th century scholars. However, to say that there is doubt in a literal Adam is far-fetched." My well-considered response? "HAHAHAHAHA!!!!
Pure gold."

There is just no other way to deal with such things. Discussion, argument, the pretense of thoughtful consideration only creates the illusion that the people who write and say and, by extension believe, such things are worthy of anything other than derisive laughter.

None of this, however, validates the proposition that conservatives, as a group, tend to have weaker cognitive skills than liberals. Because I do not believe that "intelligence" as determined by standardized tests is anything of substantive value, the study in question as well as others like it, I have serious questions about the underlying assumptions. When the very-racist Charles Murray published a book in the 1990's that used "IQ" as measured by standardized tests to make the claim that African-Americans as a group were both less intelligent than whites, and that this lower intelligence determined any number of tendencies toward social pathologies and dysfunctions, most good liberals howled. Not least because "IQ" has long been thought, at best, a dubious term and its determinants such as the Stanford-Binet test seriously flawed on any number of levels.

It is true, I think, that there is a whole lot of hokum on the right. I also think the only real way we eliminate such hokum is to make fun of it, laugh at it, make it clear that as it is hokum we are under no obligation to "discuss" it as if it were anything other than hokum.

That doesn't mean the people who hold such views - sometimes in the face of massive amounts of evidence - are less intelligent. There may well be many reasons why individuals and groups continue to hold beliefs that are proved to be in error. Acting on such beliefs has its own costs, to be sure. I think rewarding ourselves for being smart is not the best way to promote serious public discourse.

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