Lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice through right-wing ideology

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Lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice through right-wing ideology

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Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes Study

Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.


Could a mod fix the spelling of "cognitive" in the title.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

As I've said before, I'm a bit suspicious of cognitive science and its quanitification of things like "intelligence." I wonder what this article tells leftists that it doesn't already know: impoverished areas with low investment in education and health care appeal to systemic prejudices and biases in order to make sense of or compensate for their inferior economic and cultural status. Calling a social problem "lower cognitive ability" strikes me as a very dangerous move.


IQ tests are very good at measuring socio-economic status.


Ability in the sense that you mention CF would imply a disability, which I don't think is being discussed here. In the absence of one which might negatively affect the absorption of new information and concepts, ability can always be enhanced through education for instance. Attempting to determine if lower cognitive abilities lead to the taking on of prejudices as a result of poor education and exposure to information sounds like a pretty good place to start when determining the origin of social problems. They don't just occur on their own.


Interesting study. The authors posit that adopting another person's perspective" (empathy requires advanced cognitive processing. Although outside this study, it would be interesting to see  class analysis.


"empathy requires advanced cogitive processing"? ... Where'dya get that?


A very interesting study.

1) The authors assume that g (general intelligence) exists, and then go on to try to relate it to social conservatism, right-wing ideology, and prejudice.

2) Although there's lots of evidence for the existence of g, some people may be reluctant to accept it for ideological reasons.

3) They conclude that stupidity is associated with prejudice.

4) Their definition of "right-wing ideology" is that it consists of social conservatism and authoritarianism. If this definition catches on it will stick a fork in the trend of characterizing libertarians as right-wing, since (most) libertarians are socially liberal and anti-authoritarian. I say most because it's a broad church.


Catchfire wrote:

As I've said before, I'm a bit suspicious of cognitive science and its quanitification of things like "intelligence."

I'm suspicious of an unreferenced IQ test - is this Spearman's g or Raven's test or what please - without knowing the test, you can't know the flaws and strengths of the test, and besides, the convention is to state the name of the IQ test up front. I don't trust an unspecified IQ test in an academic abstract. IQ is just speed of processing. But saying I'm 1/2 your speed at this or 1/5th of Einstein's requires that the test norms be known. To know the test norms you must specify the test.

I suspect with stereotyping they could look at other factors like impulsivity, failure to take social reference cues from appropriate role models, failure to quicky take another's perspective, sort of a 'thick headedness'. But then we're back at something like IQ as applied to social cognition, aren't we?

If you want to really hammer down the competence, then what you do is, you train the people in the cognitive competence of interest and when the stereotyping/prejudice vanishes you bow gracefully.

Caissa wrote:

The authors posit that adopting another person's perspective" (empathy requires advanced cognitive processing. Although outside this study, it would be interesting to see class analysis.

"empathy requires advanced cogitive processing"? ... Where'dya get that?

Apparently Caissa there is something about SES, see p. 190 bottom. Also click here Supplemental Figures (gag) http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/01/04/0956797611421206/suppl/DC1

In regards to empathy you'll see empathic response in infants, even animals. But these empathic responses aren't the same as the concept of another's thought and feeling as a separate object of thought, or a proposition. This development comes years later.

Understanding falsity happens around 4-5. Once you know another can think differently than you, in an explicit, symbolic way. This roughly corresponds with Piaget's decline in egocentrism that reliably happens around 5-8 years. Not surprisingly, you'll see children's performance on the three mountains task improve during this same time frame. The TMT measures point of view, and understanding POV would seem necessary for real empathy - intersubjectivity.

Yes we acquire the competence as children; Yes we fail at this as adults all the time as critical thinkers and sure, critical thinking requires a humility of thought that I can see evading some very rigid cognitive 'styles' for lack of a better term. Also, some ideological frames require less critical thinking - totalitarianism for example, or authoritarianism as the authors rightly claim.

One suggestive piece for empathy requiring advanced cognitive processing is that working memory also improves dramatically during the time I've suggested and IQ and WM are correlated if I'm not mistaken. Further, higher IQ/WM people are able to disregard irrelevant  information and focus on processing better than those with lower IQ/WM - at least with R2 university undergrads. So, taking both pieces together, they can hold more items in mind, and work on them more efficiently than lower IQ folk. So on the face of it the study rationale makes sense: Having a bigger workbench where your tools make the work fast means you make a better quality product in less time, right, you produce more sophisticated thought. It makes sense too that slower processors would rely on ready solutions like stereotype or prejudice. IQ=speed of processing roughly.

I'm not defending the study because it looks poor in some respects as you've mentioned, but they went to a lot of effort and deserve kudos for some bulk data gathering. The meta analyses are statistical cherry picking of a sample, in my opinion - people seldom pick items for meta analysis that defy their predictions and surprise all of their predictions came true.

The study has heuristic value in spurring someone else onwards to do a controlled training study. And giving us some stereotypes we can use to make ourselves feel better when some tory drives by in a Bentley.

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture

Do you folk really treat this tripe as academia? Suspicious Rabble_Incognito, downright fraudulent for me. You identified the flaws and went with it. How about you spill the beans?


Huh? Spill what beans?


I thought about what 'spill the beans' meant for a day or so and I still can't figure it out. So I'm going to spitball a guess that you're asking is it fraudulent and in exchange I'm asking Am I qualified to review such a paper? And the answer is no, it's not my field and I don't have the energy to give it full attention - I fatigue quickly and I don't have proper glasses so it's challenging to read the screen sometimes in edit mode especially. But I find it very interesting!

I'm a bigot in that I think that these rightists (or leftists I spose) can be authoritarian at times - I can imagine for example a person who runs a union who reacts with power assertion as a method, but I can also imagine a union boss regretting having to come down heavy on someone. I doubt CEOs and rightists feel guilt because their motivation isn't 'others' (and guilt is an others based emotion) the CEO route is self advancement with thier eyes on the prize. Being a leftie means thinking about others, both for collective power and as a basis for  community and a grounding for ethics and conduct. So that's why I feel the author hit my 'bigot' joy button by aiming his critique to the right. I'd have a beer with the author, sure.

I think of authoritarianism like being in a power trance.

You can wake people up from the trance. But my bigotry says it takes accumulation of a great deal of teaching, counter evidence and social training to do it.

It makes you wonder where does the fascist tendency come from? I think it is borne out of an insecurity or a fissure in the self. Like a small penis thing conceptually but deeper in the self and not trivial. Like, the Nazis wouldn't be the Nazis if the Treaty of Versailles hadn't injured their core identity/self. The response? A state that was a cult of personality - and Hitler's was the personality they chose as a 'response' to the injury of Versailles "I'll show you who is the boss." It's no surprise the nation chose a bully to right the wrong(s).


Here's a twist, or should I say 'twisted' example of how IQ failed to predict authoritarianism:


I'd never heard of that school before - interesting weird cult.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

IQ tests in high school in 1964 (my first year) were given in the huge cafeteria/auditorium of Merivale High (Ottawa). One teacher was giving instructions from the furthest point in the room away from me. I've been hard of hearing my entire life. I had to look around me and figure out what the other kids were doing, then do likewise. So these tests were fucked up for the disabled.