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Research on political affiliations


It’s a presidential election year in the USA. A ton of research on “how party X thinks” has popped to the top of the news reels, but sadly it’s not very well explained by the media. The following is an analysis of one such HuffingtonPost article on some research that completely missed the conclusions of said research. I’ve translated the science to general English. [This was originally published here].

There’s a HuffingtonPost article that’s been floating around, claiming to tie up low IQ to racism/prejudice/conservatism. The title of the article isn’t technically false; it is, however, horribly misleading, and the article itself is a wonderful example of terrible scientific journalism. This is a case of media getting science horribly wrong for inflammatory purposes. Regardless of what the conclusions of the study are, remember: this is only one study, not a bunch of studies backed up by a theory.

I’m not going to link the HuffPost article, because it’s not worth reading unless you want to know how awful science education really is. Google it if you wish; the full study is here: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/23/2/187.full

Let’s translate science into regular language–and do correct me if I run off into space.

It looks like it could be saying that “people of conservative bents are dumb”, when actually it’s saying that, if we know a person’s IQ is low, it is much more likely that they will THEN HAVE higher levels of prejudice–which is a different conclusion and entirely the opposite causal direction. Note that it begins with IQ, not that it begins with political ideals, and also not that it is looking at prejudice (specifically homophobia and not general prejudice) and not at political ideologies.

To quote the abstract of the actual science: “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.”

To quote the findings:

“Abstract reasoning negatively predicted prejudice, but this effect was significantly reduced when we included the mediators in the model. Lower levels of abstract reasoning also predicted greater right-wing authoritarianism, which in turn predicted elevated prejudice against homosexuals. Independent of these effects, there was a simultaneous indirect effect through increased intergroup contact: Individuals who had a greater capacity for abstract reasoning experienced more contact with out-groups, and more contact predicted less prejudice.
Our analysis of two large-scale U.K. data sets established a predictive relation between childhood g (a latent factor of generalized intelligence) and adult prejudice, as well as an indirect effect of g on prejudice via conservative ideology; this indirect effect explained more than 90% of the relation between g and racism in three of the four analyses (see Table 2). Thus, conservative ideology represents a critical pathway through which childhood intelligence predicts racism in adulthood. “

Translation: A bunch of nerds wanted to see if a person’s intelligence could predict that person’s levels of prejudice. It turns out that, yes, there was a relation, although that relation mostly disappears if the person is exposed to conservative ideologies or if the person has low contact with people not like themself (low outgroup contact).

This means that a low-IQ person is more likely to be prejudiced–especially if that person only hangs around people like themself, or especially if that person also endorses conservative ideologies. This does not mean that all conservatives are prejudiced, nor does it mean that all conservatives are idiots, nor does it mean that all conservatives never leave their houses, or any combination of the above. Also, the direction of the relation is “low IQ–>prejudice”, not “prejudice–>low IQ”; but it is NOT causal–meaning that low IQ does not cause prejudice.

More intergroup contact predicting less prejudice does not mean that the person was not conservative; it simply means that the person showed lower tendencies towards prejudice–they could be still conservative. Again, this is not causal–it is merely a relation; having contact with others does not automatically erase prejudice, it only means that it is likely to make the prejudice go away. As a side note, racists can also have a liberal ideology.

In the last paragraph quoted, it states that childhood intelligence is predictive of adult prejudice and that there is a helping effect of exposure to conservative politics–that exposure accounts for almost all of the prejudice in most of the analysis conducted in this paper. Thus, conservativism appears to play a large role in solidifying racism, meaning that when conservatism is added to an environment that usually produces racism (such as the one with the characteristics described above), then people are more likely to actually be racist. All of that is according to this one paper; one paper does not mean it’s fact.

As a final note, it does make sense that IQ would play a part in prejudice, because formations of prejudice generally happen with “see a bunch of people having trait X act a certain way–>all people with trait X act this way”. This indicates poor reasoning skills, which is a hallmark of low IQ; high IQ indicates higher abstract reasoning skills. It also makes sense that low intergroup contact would enforce prejudices because the person would not see examples of people with X trait who act differently. Finally, it also makes sense that conservative values would be a moderator variable: one tenet of extreme social conservativism is that “you reap what you sow”, which when combined with lack of being able to see that not everyone is treated equally, those who suffer under prejudice are reinforced as being simply lazy rather than taking apart the social and economic forces at work, which would require the missing abstract reasoning skills.

  1. 2013-04-22 at 07:03

    wonderful submit, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector don’t notice this. You should proceed your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

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