Friday, October 25, 2013

The Complex Relationship Between Intelligence and Political Orientation
Intelligence is easily one of the most controversial and divisive issues in scientific psychology. Add the issue of political ideology and the result is likely to stir up heated debate. Dr Goal Saedi at Psychology Today touched on the subject of how intelligence is related to political ideology and provoked quite a strong response. The subject is a complex one and not yet fully understood. A review of the research literature reveals some conflicting findings, but one theme that seems to emerge is that the cultural context appears to influence the way that intelligence and political orientation are related to each other.

Psychologists have often been unkind to conservatives

A variety of theories have been proposed about the nature of the relationship between political views and intelligence. Some scholars (for example Stankov, 2009) have argued that conservative political ideologies tend to be associated with lower intelligence on average. Conservatives generally value tradition, respect for authority, and social order, and tend to be low in openness to experience, and so are leery of innovation and change. These scholars have argued that such values tend to be associated with cognitive rigidity and may therefore appeal to people who have difficulty with intellectual challenges that require them to process novel information. In support of this, Stankov (2009) cited evidence that people with more conservative views tend to score lower on IQ tests and to have lower levels of education. Not surprisingly, conservatives tend to react angrily to such assertions. Accusations of liberal bias among academics are often made and there does appear to be a degree of truth to these, especially among social psychologists in particular (e.g. Prentice, 2012).

An alternative theory, originally proposed by Hans Eysenck, is that higher intelligence is associated with avoidance of extreme political views in general. Hence, more intelligent people are thought to be moderate/centrist in their political views. The argument is that more extreme views, whether right-wing or left-wing, tend to be associated with dogmatism and rigidity, which are more appealing to less intelligent people. A recent proponent of this view is Rinderman who argued that more intelligent people tend to have civic values that lead them to support political systems they believe will foster education and the growth of knowledge (Rindermann, Flores-Mendoza, & Woodley, 2012). Hence, according to this view, intelligent people tend to believe that moderate/centrist parties are more likely to promote their particular social interests compared to more clearly left or right parties. In support of this, Rinderman et al. cite findings from Great Britain and Brazil showing that people who expressed support for centrist parties (including centre-right and centre-left) had higher average IQ’s compared to those who supported more clearly left or right parties. An interesting finding from the study in Brazil was that people who had a political orientation at all tended to have a higher IQ than those who said they had no political orientation. This suggests that people who are more intelligent tend to be more interested in and informed about politics generally. It is worth noting that the average IQ’s cited for the various political orientations in Rinderman et al.’s study were all well within the  normal range (an IQ ranging between 90 – 110 is considered “average”). For example, those who supported centre-right parties had the highest IQ (about 105) whereas those who supported clearly left or right parties had IQ’s around 94.  

Although Rinderman et al. found that more intelligent people tended to support more moderate views, an American study found the opposite effect. Kemmelmeier (2008) surveyed college students who scored above average in academic achievement tests (e.g. SAT and ACT) and found two trends. There was a linear trend for more intelligent students to be less conservative overall, in line with Stankov’s findings. Additionally, there was a non-linear trend[1] for the most intelligent students to support more extreme (i.e. left or right-wing) political views as opposed to more moderate ones, contrary to the findings of Rinderman et al. Political views in this study was measured by first asking people how liberal vs. conservative they were, and additionally asking about their views on more specific issues referred to as “traditional gender roles” and “anti-regulation” attitudes. Participants’ views on the former issues (e.g. gay marriage and abortion) were more strongly associated with their overall conservatism than their views on government regulation (e.g. gun control, higher taxes for the wealthy, speech codes on campus). Interestingly, higher intelligence was associated with less conservative views on traditional gender roles on the one hand, but more “conservative” views opposing government regulation. This suggests that more intelligent people in this study tended to support both greater personal freedom and less government regulation in general (libertarians take note). This finding is similar to that of a previous finding that higher education was associated with greater support for liberal social policies but not with support for greater economic regulation (Gerber, Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010).

The respective findings of Rinderman et al. and of Kemmelmeier would seem to contradict each other. The conflicting findings might possibly reflect differences between the samples. Participants in Rinderman’s study were predominantly of average intelligence, whereas those in Kemmelmeier’s study were students from elite colleges with high levels of intellectual ability. Perhaps, there is a complicated relationship with intelligence such that people of average ability tend to prefer moderate views, whereas those with greater intellectual gifts might perceive more extreme ideologies, whether left or right-wing, as more sophisticated and hence more appealing. Further research is needed to assess whether this is the case.

Another possibility is that the cultural context has an important impact on what political ideologies are most acceptable to intelligent people. The results of Rinderman et al.’s study might have been influenced by the fact that Brazilian people have had a long history of living through more extreme political regimes than in the USA. Hence, intelligent, sophisticated voters in Brazil might be more wary of extreme political parties than in the United States. Additionally, the ideologies that intelligent people support might be influenced by social norms. Woodley’s cultural mediation hypothesis proposes that that the highly intelligent are better at detecting and espousing the values that are normative at a particular time (Woodley, 2010). Hence, intellectuals might fluctuate in their support for left or right-wing views according to changing social norms. In support of this, Woodley notes a study of white South Africans in the 1980’s that found that higher cognitive ability was correlated with support for traditional conservative religious and political views, which were socially normative in that time and place. Woodley argues that since the 1960s, post-materialist values have become normative among intellectuals in much of the Western world. Hence apparent associations between left-liberal views and intelligence may reflect currently prevailing Western values.

The findings discussed illustrate a number of key points. Firstly, highly intelligent individuals may actually support right-wing views, not just left-wing ones, contrary to claims that support for right-wing positions reflects a lack of intellectual sophistication. It seems fair to say then that not only liberals, but conservatives (and those with other positions, such as libertarians) can have intellectually sophisticated reasons for their political views. The second point is that categorising people simply as generally liberal or conservative may mask differences in people’s views on social versus economic issues. The results of Kemmelmeier’s study suggest that when people are asked if they are liberal or conservative, they may give more weight to their views on social issues (such as abortion and gay rights) than to their views on economic issues (such as taxation). Therefore, in order to better understand how political attitudes are related to intelligence, a two-dimensional model that separates social and economic attitudes (see The World’s Smallest Political Quiz for one example) may be preferable to the traditional yet overly simplistic left/right distinction.

Finally, the relationship between intelligence and political attitudes is most likely not fixed in some simple way, but probably changes across time and context.

[1] This could be visualised as like a U-shaped distribution of intelligence across the political spectrum. That is, there was a peak of intelligence on the left side, a dip in the middle, and a rise towards the right side. The left side tended to have more highly intelligent people than the right though, in line with the linear trend. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Image credit: EN2008 

Other articles discussing intelligence or the psychology of political orientation
Cold Winters and the Evolution of Intelligence - A critique of Richard Lynn’s Theory

Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., Dowling, C. M., & Ha, S. E. (2010). Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts. American Political Science Review, 104(01), 111-133. doi: doi:10.1017/S0003055410000031                   
            Kemmelmeier, M. (2008).  Is there a relationship between political orientation and cognitive ability? A test of three hypotheses in two studies. Personality and Individual Differences, 45 (8), 767-772 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.003
Prentice, D. A. (2012). Liberal Norms and Their Discontents. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 516-518. doi: 10.1177/1745691612454142

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Individual Differences in Religious Prejudices
Even though religions preach love of humanity, decades of psychological research have linked religiousness with prejudice. In recent times, certain types of prejudice, particularly racism, have become socially unacceptable and are nowadays condemned by religious leaders. However, religious prejudice against homosexuals and against atheists is still tolerated and even encouraged by mainstream religious groups. Atheists in particular appear to be one of the most vilified minority groups in America today. Some researchers have argued that how dogmatically people hold their beliefs is more important to religious prejudice than the actual content of their beliefs. However, a recent study suggests that when it comes to prejudice against gays and atheists, the content of the belief – specifically belief in God – is as important, perhaps even more important, than how dogmatically a person holds those beliefs.

Biblically based morality leaves something to be desired from a humanitarian standpoint

Different kinds of religiosity and prejudice
The relationship between religiosity and various kinds of prejudice has been noted for a long time. For example, studies from the 1950s found that church-goers were more likely to hold racist views than people who never attend church. Religiosity is a complex concept and so researchers have attempted to understand which particular features of religiousness are particularly relevant to prejudice. Gordon Allport, for example, proposed that people can have either intrinsic or extrinsic motives for religious behaviour. Extrinsic motives are ones where religion is seen as a means to another end (e.g. attending church for social reasons) whereas people with intrinsic motives see religion as an end in itself, and therefore the central guiding principle in their lives. Allport was of the view that extrinsic religiosity was associated with the negative features of religion, such as prejudice, whilst intrinsic religiosity was a more “mature” approach, associated with the best qualities of religion. Allport even claimed that intrinsically religious people have “no place for rejection, contempt,  or condescension” toward others (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010). However, while research has shown that extrinsic religiosity is positively associated with racism, intrinsic religiosity is largely uncorrelated with racism, suggesting that intrinsically religious people are little different from people who are not religious with regard to racial prejudice. Additionally, there is evidence that people’s ratings of intrinsic religiosity are affected by socially desirable responding, so that intrinsically religious people may be more concerned with the appearance of being virtuous, rather than the reality.

Fundamentalism strongly predicts prejudice
An alternative approach has been to consider how dogmatically a person holds their religious beliefs. Dogmatism may be considered a sign of cognitive inflexibility, and people who are inflexible in their thinking may be more likely to hold stereotyped views of minority groups that promote prejudice. In support of this, a number of studies have linked religious fundamentalism in people of many different religions – including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, as well as Christians – with increased anti-gay prejudice (Hunsberger, 1995). Holding absolutist beliefs that forbid one to question dogma and that regard the world as divided into good and evil tends to be conducive to prejudice. In contrast, religious people who value willingness to question one’s beliefs, who acknowledge that other beliefs might also contain truth, and who are non-authoritarian, tend to be less prejudiced, although not less so than non-religious people (Hunsberger, 1995).

The How and the What of Religious Belief
Findings linking dogmatism to prejudice across a number of religions have led some researchers to conclude that the how of belief – the cognitive rigidity or flexibility of one’s beliefs – is more important to understanding prejudice than the what of belief – the actual content of one’s belief. However, the authors of a recent paper have argued that most studies on the subject have confounded the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ rather than measuring them separately. Specifically, the authors argue that how strongly one believes in God or a higher power (the what component of belief) can contribute to prejudice independently of the rigidity of one’s beliefs (the how component) (Shen, Yelderman, Haggard, & Rowatt, 2013). Belief in God may be relevant to specific prejudice against people who are seen to violate one’s values. Specifically, gay people and atheists are perceived by many religious people as being in violation of religious values.
The authors used a measure called the Post Critical Beliefs Scale (PCBS) to disentangle the respective effects of cognitive rigidity and belief in God on prejudice. The PCBS assesses religious belief based on two broad dimensions: whether one takes a literal or symbolic approach, which is thought to assess rigidity/flexibility of belief; and inclusion/exclusion of transcendence, which assesses belief in the existence of God or a higher power. Prejudice was measured with a measure of comfort with social proximity to the target groups. That is, people who express greater discomfort being around members of particular groups are considered to be more prejudiced against them.  

Belief in God and Prejudice against “Value-Violators”
The results of two studies showed that belief in God significantly predicted prejudice against both gays and atheists respectively even when taking into account the level of cognitive rigidity (literal-symbolic belief). Belief in God was actually more strongly related to prejudice against atheists than against gay people.[1] In contrast, cognitive rigidity was associated with greater prejudice against black people, but belief in God was not. Furthermore, the second study by Shen et al. found that intrinsic religiosity, religious behaviour (service attendance, reading sacred texts, and prayer), and general religiosity (self-rating of how religious one is) were also associated quite substantially with prejudice against gays and atheists, but not with prejudice against blacks. This is contrary to Allport’s claim that intrinsically religious people have no place for rejection or contempt of their fellow man. The results of this study indicate that people who believe strongly in God and regard their religion as very important are very uncomfortable around gays and atheists, but especially the latter.

Religion can also promote in-group loyalty at the expense of those who don't share the same beliefs

 The authors of this study concluded that the two components of religiousness they studied – cognitive rigidity and belief in God – each tend to contribute to specific prejudices. Cognitive rigidity appears to be more strongly related to racial prejudice, whereas belief in God appears to be related more particularly to “value-violating” prejudice, specifically against gays and atheists. It is also worth noting that modern religious leaders tend to condemn racial prejudice, but are more often tolerant of, or even encourage, prejudice against gays and atheists (Whitley, 2009).

Some Limitations of the Study and Future Directions
While I think the findings of Shen et al. are quite interesting, their methodology may have had certain limitations. The sole measure of prejudice used was based on social distance. While this is useful, it would also have been informative to examine how more specific prejudicial and stereotyped beliefs about gays and atheists (e.g. “atheists have no moral values,” “gays corrupt children”) might be related to belief in God and cognitive rigidity respectively. I also have some reservations about the “literal-symbolic” dimension of the PCBS as a measure of cognitive-rigidity. In particular, people who reject religious faith altogether and people with very literal orthodox religious beliefs are both classified as being cognitively rigid because they do not accept a “symbolic” interpretation of religion belief. This seems to treat atheism as an alternative form of dogmatism, which is questionable. Just because one rejects religious faith does not necessarily imply that one is dogmatic in the sense of being unable to consider the possibility that one might be mistaken. (Although for an examination of dogmatism in atheists see this article here.) Use of a content-free measure of dogmatism would provide a clearer understanding of the role of cognitive rigidity.
Finally, this study looked at whether belief in God in general is related to prejudice. This is certainly important to know. However, future studies might examine whether more specific beliefs about what God is like provide more accurate predictions of prejudice than just belief in God generally. For example, belief in a morally judgmental god who rejects people deemed to be “immoral” might be a stronger predictor of prejudice compared to belief in a warm fuzzy deity who accepts everyone.

I would also like to acknowledge that, in line with most statistical trends in psychology, there are exceptions to the general findings presented here. There are religious people who are accepting of gay people and of people who do not share their belief in a higher power, even if they do appear to be in the minority.

[1] For the statistically-minded, the difference between correlations was significant in both studies. 

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.

Related Reading
Why are Atheists so Disliked? Epiphenomenon blog

Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality

Hall, D. L., Matz, D. C., & Wood, W. (2010). Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 126-139. doi: 10.1177/1088868309352179
Hunsberger, B. (1995). Religion and Prejudice: The Role of Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Journal of Social Issues, 51(2), 113-129. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01326.x
Shen, M. J., Yelderman, L. A., Haggard, M. C., & Rowatt, W. C. (2013). Disentangling the belief in God and cognitive rigidity/flexibility components of religiosity to predict racial and value-violating prejudice: A Post-Critical Belief Scale analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 54 (3), 389-395 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.10.008
Whitley, B. E. (2009). Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19(1), 21-38. doi: 10.1080/10508610802471104