In recent decades social scientists have revealed through research that a number of stereotypes about conservatism are simply untrue. Conservatives for example participate in more charitable activities than liberals and tend to be almost twice as happy as people with liberal viewpoints (Brooks, 2008). The reason why conservatives tend to be happier than liberals is because they are better able to justify inequalities of the society to themselves and are thus, less bothered by it (Napier & Jost, 2008). The supposed negative relationship between intelligence and conservatism is another example of a social and political stereotype that has gained momentum over the last few years.
To test the hypothesis that there is a negative relationship between conservatism and intelligence, Stankov (2009), researcher at National Institute of Education, Singapore, conducted three separate studies on college students from U.S. and 73 other nations. The participants were given a battery of questionnaires that measured their personality traits, social attitudes, values, and social norms. Scores on these questionnaires were correlated with individual measures of intelligence including SAT scores and vocabulary and analogies scores from Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL) for participants from outside U.S. A country level correlation was also performed that looked at relationships between broad measures of social attitudes and various measures of intelligence including scores from IQ tests from 1950-1999, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores for math, science, and reading, and scores from Failed State Index.
The notion of conservatism used in the study was derived from various measures of personality and social attitudes. To be a conservative in this study meant a person who cared about traditional values, national security, social order, and strongly believed in in-group collectivism. A conservative person was also someone who accepted prevalent religious beliefs including belief in mystical and paranormal experiences. A conservative person was someone who was not open to intellectual challenges and held negative views of those who were not part of his/her group.
The results of the study supported the hypothesis that high levels of conservatism is correlated with low cognitive ability. At the individual level, scores on measures of conservatism correlated negatively with SAT, vocabulary, and analogy test scores. At the country level, scores on measures of conservatism correlated negatively with various measures of education, PISA scores for math and reading, and several components of Failed State Index.
There are several possible reasons for why there is a negative relationship between conservatism and intelligence. According to the theory of motivated cognition (Jost et al., 2003), people with low levels of intelligence are burdened by complex nature of reality and are thus motivated to adopt conservative views as a response to uncertainty. Another possibility is that there is a third cause like mental rigidity, fundamentalism, lack of formal education, or wealth that is common to both conservatism and intelligence. But these are all speculations since the goal of the study was not to establish direction of causality but only find some relationship between the two variables.
Brooks, A.R. (2008). Gross national happiness: Why happiness matters for America-and how we can get more of it. New York: Basic Books.
Jost, J.T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.
Napier, J.L., & Jost, J.T. (2008). Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science, 19, 565-572.
Stankov, L. (2009). Conservatism and cognitive ability. Intelligence, 37, 294-304.
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