IQ, politics and racism

10 Feb

Are racists dumb? Are liberals as a group smarter than conservatives?

Gordon Hodson and Michael Busseri’s study “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact,” published in the 1/5/12 issue of Psychological Science, does, in fact, suggest that there is a correlation, if not a causal relationship among low IQ, political conservatism and racism (

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 (Hodson and Busseri, 2012).

Their study also references a 2010 study that identifies right-wing authoritarianism as a predictor of antigay prejudice (“Abstract reasoning as a predictor of attitudes toward gay men,”  Journal of Homosexuality, by S. W. Keiller).

 While the validity of IQ and tests that measure it is controversial, there is something resonant in the study’s logic:

In psychological terms, the relation between [general intelligence] and prejudice may stem from the propensity of individuals with lower cognitive ability to endorse more rightwing 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… [O]ur longitudinal analyses… demonstrat[e] that childhood [general intelligence] predicts racism in adulthood independently of education and socioeconomic status.

Translation: people want stability and order, and as inequality is a lived reality, it’s not surprising that we may prefer to rationalize it (and maintain a racist status quo), rather than to challenge it (and invite upheaval). And I do mean “we,” not just those conservatives over there.

While self-identified liberals are preening over the study’s findings, I’m curious about how this research may yet apply to those of us who consider ourselves high IQ and/or left-leaning. Certainly, in my work as a diversity consultant whose primary clientele consists of intelligent, progressive folks, I’ve observed attachment to ideologies like colorblindness, which absolutely functions as a filter to preserve one’s sense of self and the goodness of the world. While colorblindness (like class or sexuality blindness) does not explicitly “promote negative evaluations of out-groups,” it does promote negative evaluation of those who do name race, while maintaining a positive self-image (as someone who is “above” or “beyond” race). Ironically, colorblindness, despite its noble intention to treat people equally, can lead to the opposite effect: if we do not name race, we cannot address social inequalities perpetuated on the basis of race.

Despite the illogic of colorblindness, it is a persistent, popular ideology that seems to me to serve much of the same function as right-wing ideology, in the terms of this study. So perhaps this research is not so much a smug victory for liberals as it is a call to self-awareness for all of us humans who tend towards fixed ways of seeing and being in the world.

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