Society and Culture

Are Conservatives Really Less Intelligent?

The latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence features some provocative new research. Let me quote from the abstract of Lazar Stankov’s article, “Conservatism and Cognitive Ability”:

Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated . . . At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, Vocabulary, and Analogy test scores. At the national level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with measures of education… and performance on mathematics and reading assessments . . .

By “conservatism” the author has in mind a kind of Burkean traditionalism, probably best described as “social conservatism”:

The Conservative syndrome describes a person who attaches particular importance to the respect of tradition, humility, devoutness and moderation as well as to obedience, self-discipline and politeness, social order, family, and national security and has a sense of belonging to and a pride in a group with which he or she identifies. A Conservative person also subscribes to conventional religious beliefs and accepts the mystical, including paranormal, experiences.

The author of the study refrains from drawing any explicit political conclusions, but it’s clear what many people will think when they read it—liberalism is essentially correct, and conservatism is essentially wrong. After all, smarter people usually make better choices, and smarter people are less likely to be conservative. So how are we to conclude anything but the obvious? Conservatism is stupid, right?

One could argue that smart people do not actually make great political choices. The Marxist revolutionaries in Russia, for example, probably had very high IQs. But there’s a more basic reason the conservatism-is-stupid argument does not actually follow from this research. As long as smarter people are more likely to be skeptical of tradition, then full-blown rejection of tradition will almost inevitably be associated with higher IQ, even if a majority of smart people still favor traditionalism.

Consider the example of religion. Let’s say that the bottom half of the IQ distribution never questions the religion of their upbringing, while the top half is skeptical. Now, just among that skeptical top half, let’s say that X% end up affirming their faith and remain religious, while the rest reject faith and become atheists.

Even if the vast majority of smart and initially skeptical people remain religious—say, X=90%—there would still be a positive correlation between IQ and atheism. The correlation exists not because smart people have rejected religion—quite the contrary, in this hypothetical example—but because religion is the “default” position for less intelligent people in our society.

I wonder how IQ and religiosity correlate in a place where atheism is the default…

UPDATE: This post inspired me to write a full article on the topic.

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