Study: Poor thinking skills and conservatism/racism/homophobia strongly correlated

Via Jezebel, sometimes science isn’t just good for improving humanity’s lot in this universe, or improving (or drastically reducing) our overall life expectancy as a species. Sometimes science is also excellent at coming along and sciencing you up the perfect blog post.

As it turns out, pretty much everything you’ve suspected about conservatism and racism being correlated with being scientifically proven stupid is exactly true. The worse your cognitive abilities, the more likely you are to be a prejudiced jackass.

The first study examined two groups of British adults, one born in 1958 and the other born in 1970. Both groups were assessed for intelligence at age 10 or 11, and then a followup was conducted when they were between the ages of 30 and 33. During the initial test, children were asked to complete tasks that tested their abilities to reason and remember. During the followup two decades later, researchers assessed the subjects’ level of prejudice and degree of socially conservative views. “Social conservatism” was determined by asking subjects to respond to a series of questions like “Family life suffers if mom is working full time” or “I wouldn’t mind working with other races.” In this study, children with low scores on the first set of tests tended to grow up to exhibit prejudiced and socially conservative viewpoints on the second set of tests.

The study found that people with poorer abstract reasoning skills tended to be more homophobic, even when researchers controlled for education level.

The Canadian researchers hypothesize that people who “have trouble grasping the complexity of the world” may tend toward prejudice and conservatism because they crave structure and can’t process chaos and nuance. Religion, authoritarianism, and isolationism appeal to a desire for order in a world that offers few absolutes.

Yes, that does dovetail with my every experience with religious, conservative, authoritarian or isolationist thinking I’ve encountered — the simple fact that the world is far more nuanced than their particular epistemologies allow for, and that people and situations are far more complex than such black-and-white thinking recommends, means these people are very often at odds with reality itself. The worse you are at comprehending nuance, the less likely you’ll have empathy for other people’s situations — whether you’re capable of such empathy or not, you need to understand a person’s lot in life before you can empathize.

This is one of those happy-making studies, though — one of those studies that plays into what we’d like to hear about those folks that we just can’t get through to with our ideals of plurality and reality-based policy. I’ve learned that the things that I want to be true, I should be the most skeptical of. The fact remains that this study is a correlative one, and cannot prove causality, not even by obtaining tons of data proving definitive correlations — to do that, we’d have to be able to, as the original study write-up maintains, randomly assign people to being liberal or conservative, and good or bad at reasoning. I’d strongly suspect, though, that since reasoning skills are usually taught first and politics taught later (in most upbringings anyway), the causation goes in chronological order.

I also suspect that the quickest way to end these disturbingly irrational philosophies is to teach children, as early as possible, how to think critically and reason properly. All the rest will probably fall into place naturally thereafter. And then, regardless of the direction of causality, you’ll have controlled for the only part you actually can in child-rearing. I mean, short of a cattle-prod and mind-reading device, which really isn’t liberals’ thing, by my understanding.

Study: Poor thinking skills and conservatism/racism/homophobia strongly correlated

18 thoughts on “Study: Poor thinking skills and conservatism/racism/homophobia strongly correlated

  1. 3

    Never mind “controlling for education levels”, there are two DECADES worth of insanely complex environmental factors that seem to have gone completely disregarded in this study. Plus the environmental factors while the kids were growing up – what if parental conservatism leads to a lower interest in the children’s educational level as well as compounding conservative ideals in them, both independently? There are many other hypotheses.

    It’s a nice idea that seems intuitive, but be wary of correlating poor science and stupidity with poor science.

  2. 4

    O.o Wow. That’s the most vulnerable-to-bias research topic I’ve seen from, like, the last hundred years. And neither questionnaires nor IQ tests are the most unbiased test instruments in history. It might be right, but I’m very leery to trust results like this, even for showing correlation, until they’re repeated. As you point out, when a scientific (or other rational-inquiry) result makes you want to say “HA! In your FACE!” to someone, it’s possible that your feelings may have corrupted your methodology without you noticing.

  3. 7

    I’d strongly suspect, though, that since reasoning skills are usually taught first and politics taught later (in most upbringings anyway), the causation goes in chronological order.

    Hmmm… Whilst you’re probably right about explicit politics, I’d argue the sort of fundamental attitudes and values which form the basis of people’s politics are instilled very early on indeed.

  4. 8

    While I understand why some are skeptical of this study’s results, it replicates the results of other studies that have been cited in my college textbooks for Sociology classes I took. I learned from these textbooks that the higher the education level, the more likely to have liberal social views.

  5. 9

    The one thing I would’ve liked to have seen, and maybe they controlled for it, was the children’s parents. Like most people have said here so far, parental beliefs can have a pretty significant sway on a child’s future beliefs. It should be at least a noted factor for the children as it could be an alternate explanation for the children’s adult beliefs.

  6. 10

    Supporting anecdotal evidence…

    My dad is ultraconservative and I am not. I have a fair bit more education than dad and a desire to learn more. My dad isn’t stupid, but totally lacks critical thinking skills. He’s perfectly happy ignoring things that don’t support his worldview, and accepting things without skepticism that support his worldview.

    Fortunately, my dad left us when I was 8, allowing me to grow into a real adult instead of a caricature of one like he is.

  7. 12

    Nice study, but yeah.. correlation and causation, more skepticism when it appeals to your bias, all that good jazz.

    My anecdotal evidence supports this; my mother is socially conservative and religious (we got into a fight about whether Jessica Ahlquist was correct; I read her the 1st Amendment twice and she still didn’t understand why the banner was unconstitutional…), and just a few days ago she tells me she’s studying reiki. Face met palm.

    Still, it’s worth looking into more. It’s been said that correlation does not imply causation, but it does nudge your elbow and point in the general direction whilst winking and whispering, “look over there!” Perhaps a simple questionnaire with a very large study group (census data, anyone?) could determine the level of one’s social conservatism and one’s IQ. If there’s a strong negative correlation across the board, regardless of other aspects of culture, then I would think that that means something.

  8. 13

    Great discussion, all.

    Lorax: Except there’s a lot of issues with IQ, and people are bound to self-report IQ wrong. If we could roll the “thinking skills” question into that census we could learn a hell of a lot more about how well correlated poor thinking skills and conservatism actually are.

    I still don’t know how one would go about proving causation, though controlling for family background would help a lot. I strongly suspect that liberal families teach children how to think, and conservative families teach kids what to think, but there are break-outs on both sides, much like break-outs from religion to atheism despite being steeped in religion through childhood.

  9. 14

    You’re right, Jason. I was searching for a better term than “IQ” to represent a generic quotient of intelligence, but I couldn’t find one. It has been my experience that IQ tests only report how well you do on IQ tests. Still, it would be nice to increase and broaden the sample size, because even if there is no direct causation that we can measure or detect, a strong correlation even when accounting for numerous facets of cultural behavior (like a world-wide study across numerous cultures) does strongly hint that there’s a reason for it.

    It’s stuff like this that’s pushing me toward becoming a physics teacher. I want to show people just how awesome this natural universe is, if I can.

  10. 15

    I know of course you are all might be too busy demonising those that don’t think like you, but this study is pretty ripe for abuse.

    I wonder if a study has been done for people believing in things like astrology, homeopathy, acupuncture and any other “New Age” beliefs and their political beliefs.

  11. 16

    I think so, jolo. The keywords you’d be looking for on Google Scholar would be “magical thinking”.

    And yes, that is more strongly associated with the political left than right. And yes, as skeptics, that means we’re fighting with people who’ve replaced one kind of magical thinking — about religion — with another. Magical thinking is very probably an over-expression of comprehension of nuance, thinking there’s MORE to this reality than is in evidence, rather than thinking that reality is black-and-white, good-and-evil like the political right.

  12. 17

    It’s a shame that critical thinking classes are not offered at the elementary or high school level. I think it should be a required class in high school and would certainly help to reduce the amount of stupidity in the world.

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