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The science of psych

Conservatives Are Dumber, and Smarter, Than Liberals

Here's a more muddied red and blue picture of IQ.

Democrats are fond of declaring that those who vote Republican are on the shorter end of the bus. One line of argument goes that Grand Old Partiers are just not bright enough to figure out what's best for the nation, or even themselves. Another insinuates that they lack the faculties to deal with nuanced issues and therefore hold fast to absolutes: ALL fetuses are full people; ALL taxes go to gay crack-addicted single moms on welfare. Indeed, some studies have supported such a simple correlation between political views and intelligence, but new research soon to be published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences paints a more muddied—and interesting—red and blue picture of IQ.

Sociologist Markus Kemmelmeier compared college students' self-professed political views to their SAT and ACT scores (which are imperfect but useful measures of cognitive ability). First, he did find a general trend that social conservatives (those who wanted to ban abortion and gay marriage) weren't as gifted as students with a more progressive take on gender roles. But he found the exact opposite pattern with anti-regulation attitudes: The conservatives/libertarians (yay guns, boo taxes) appeared to be smarter than their commie compatriots. Kemmelmeier found this crossover "particularly surprising" and emailed me, "It highlights (yet again) that ‘conservatism' is not necessarily a coherent construct, but that you have to distinguish at minimum social conservatism and economic conservatism (libertarianism). If you think about it, Jerry Falwell and Milton Freedman are worlds apart."

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Kemmelmeier found another pattern in his data, one supporting the previously-suggested idea that holding unpopular political views demands more cognitive resources ("context theory"). Those with the strongest beliefs, either way-red or way-blue, are smarter than the wishy-washy centrists too confused to stake their own ground. (All of these findings only applied to verbal intelligence. Math skills had no correlation with conservatism.) "I expected to find in some ways more of the same-old, that primarily more liberal views are linked to higher ability levels," Kemmelmeier says. "But, boy, this would be very wrong—at least as a general conclusion."

For his next study, Kemmelmeier got away from surveying elitist college kids. He used intelligence data drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, statistics on the 2004 state-by-state proportions of Democratic lawmakers, and voter turnout rates. States that had higher IQ's also voted more Democrats into office—but only if political involvement was high. In states with low voter turnout, high IQ was correlated with having more Republican lawmakers. What does it all mean? Theorize at will. According to Kemmelmeier, "WHY political involvement moderates the direction of the link between conservatism/liberalism is something that needs to be explored more in the future."

Neither of the studies answer whether cognitive ability influences political orientation, or vice versa, or whether a third factor influences them both. Kemmelmeier notes that the first option makes more sense than the second, given that intelligence is more dependent upon genes than is political orientation. But of course voting for an incompetent president can have the effect of making you FEEL so much smarter, if simply by comparison.

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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