I’m right-wing, stupid!

By Babak Moussavi

Caused by low intelligence?

Are right-wingers stupid?

That is the controversial question that has been floated in recent days. The question isn’t new, and I’m sure both the Left and Right regularly decry each other as ‘stupid’ or less polite variants of it. However, the results of a study carried out by psychologists into the relationship between childhood intelligence and the holding of prejudicial and conservative views has created a proverbial storm.

Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri of Brock University, Canada, “found that lower general intelligence… in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology”. This was the result of analysing the correlation between general intelligence during childhood, and the propensity to hold prejudicial views and likelihood of subscribing to right-wing ideologies. Similar conclusions could be drawn from analysing a US dataset, where the researchers found that poor abstract-reasoning skills were linked to homophobic prejudice, and low levels of contact with different groups. All results were controlled for the effects of socio-economic status and education, meaning that they could have not have been the determinants.

Mr Hodgson and Mr Busseri’s article is worth reading (and can be accessed here), but it’s tough-going and complicated in places (I’d recommend the abstract at least). Despite its fairly apolitical goal of assessing whether prejudice has cognitive underpinnings, it has caused political fury. Amazingly, it was the right-wing Daily Mail – albeit the online version – that (to my knowledge) first publicised the study in the UK, which provoked a frenzy of irate, and often incoherent or even semi-literate, comments that Charlie Brooker took no time in satirising for all its worth. George Monbiot then weighed in, arguing that the Left should be more vociferous in its fight with the Right, and less respectful in its efforts to debate, as the other side is “more stupid than our own”.

While Mr Brooker is completely correct to point out the obvious irony of angry Mail readers frothing over the results of this academic paper and proceeding to type comments before they can be properly constructed into words, Mr Monbiot appears to have gone a step too far. Just because the general tendency of ‘being right-wing’ can be partly predicted by low intelligence, it certainly does not mean that if you are right-wing, you must be stupid. Indeed, if this were the case, why is it that the ‘Left’ is losing so many political arguments to the ‘Right’ at the moment? Moreover, the ‘right-wing’ that the study refers to relates only to its prejudicial variants; I don’t see how it would include, for example, free-market libertarianism.

What can be drawn from the two psychologists’ results is something less confrontational and more reflective. For this was the study’s purpose all along: to help us understand where prejudice and right-wing ideological positions come from. Indeed, an overlooked but intriguing thing about the results is that they controlled for education and socio-economic status, as I mentioned above. That isn’t to say these things have no effect – they surely do – but that even when we account for their impact, cognitive ability matters.

If this is all true, it presents a challenge for policy-makers who aim to eliminate prejudice in society, as it means they may also need to understand how to improve cognitive abilities. Sadly, I imagine ‘Omega-3 for pregnant women’ is a slogan that won’t catch on.

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