Intelligence and Politics Have a Complex Relationship
The way political views relate to intelligence may depend on social context.
Posted May 21, 2013
Intelligence is easily one of the most controversial and divisive issues in scientific psychology. Add the issue of political ideology and the result is likely to stir up heated debate.
Dr. Goal Saedi touched on the subject of how intelligence is related to political ideology recently and appears to have provoked quite a strong response. The subject is a complex one and not yet fully understood. Studies on the topic have produced some conflicting findings, but one theme that seems to emerge is that the cultural context influences the way that intelligence and political orientation are related to each other.
A number of theories have been proposed about the nature of the relationship between political views and intelligence. Some scholars (for example Stankov, 2009) have argued that conservative political ideologies tend to be associated with lower intelligence on average. Conservatives generally value tradition, respect for authority, and social order, and tend to be leery of innovation and change.
These scholars have argued that such values tend to be associated with cognitive rigidity and may therefore appeal to people who have difficulty with intellectual challenges that require them to process novel information. In support of this, Stankov (2009) cited evidence that people with more conservative views tend to score lower on IQ tests and to have lower levels of education. Not surprisingly, conservatives tend to react with anger to such assertions. Accusations of liberal bias among academics are often made and there does appear to be a degree of truth to these, especially among social psychologists (e.g. Prentice, 2012).
An alternative theory, originally proposed by Hans Eysenck, is that higher intelligence is associated with avoidance of extreme political views in general. Hence, more intelligent people are thought to be moderate or centrist in their political views. The argument is that more extreme views, whether right-wing or left-wing, tend to be associated with dogmatism and rigidity, which are more appealing to less intelligent people.
A recent proponent of this view is Rinderman who argued that more intelligent people tend to have civic values that lead them to support political systems they believe will foster education and the growth of knowledge (Rindermann, Flores-Mendoza, & Woodley, 2012). Hence, according to this view, intelligent people tend to believe that moderate or centrist parties are more likely to promote their particular social interests compared to more clearly left or right parties.
In support of this, Rinderman et al. cite findings from Great Britain and Brazil showing that people who expressed support for centrist parties (including centre-right and centre-left) had higher average IQs compared to those who supported more clearly left or right parties. An interesting finding from the study in Brazil was that people who had a political orientation at all tended to have a higher IQ than those who said they had no political orientation. This suggests that people who are more intelligent tend to be more interested in and informed about politics generally. It is worth noting that the average IQs cited for the various political orientations in Rinderman et al.’s study were all well within the normal range (an IQ ranging between 90 – 110 is considered “average”). For example, those who supported centre-right parties had an IQ around 105 whereas those who supported clearly left or right parties had IQs around 94.
Although Rinderman et al. found that more intelligent people tended to support more moderate views, an American study found the opposite effect. Kemmelmeier (2008) surveyed college students who scored above average in academic achievement tests (the SAT and ACT) and found two trends. There was a linear trend for more intelligent students to be less conservative overall, in line with Stankov’s findings. Additionally, there was a non-linear trend for the most intelligent students to support more extreme (left or right-wing) political views as opposed to more moderate ones, contrary to the findings of Rinderman et al.
Political views in this study were measured by first asking people how liberal vs. conservative they were, and additionally asking about their views on more specific issues referred to as “traditional gender roles” and “anti-regulation” attitudes. Participants’ views on the former issues (e.g. gay marriage and abortion) were more strongly associated with their overall conservatism than their views on government regulation (e.g. gun control, higher taxes for the wealthy, speech codes on campus). Interestingly, higher intelligence was associated with less conservative views on traditional gender roles on the one hand, but more “conservative” views opposing government regulation. This suggests that more intelligent people in this study tended to support both greater personal freedom and less government regulation in general (libertarians take note). This finding is similar to a previous finding that higher education was associated with greater support for liberal social policies but not with support for greater economic regulation (Gerber, Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010).
The respective findings of Rinderman et al. and of Kemmelmeier would seem to contradict each other. The conflicting findings might possibly reflect differences between the samples. Participants in Rinderman’s study were predominantly of average intelligence, whereas those in Kemmelmeier’s study were students from elite colleges with high levels of intellectual ability. Perhaps, there is a complicated relationship with intelligence such that people of average ability tend to prefer moderate views, whereas those with greater intellectual gifts might perceive more extreme ideologies, whether left or right-wing, as more sophisticated and hence more appealing. Further research is needed to assess whether this is the case.
Another possibility is that the cultural context has an important impact on what political ideologies are most acceptable to intelligent people. The results of Rinderman’s study might have been influenced by the fact that Brazilian people have had a long history of living through more extreme political regimes than Americans. Hence, intelligent, sophisticated voters in Brazil might be more wary of extreme political parties than in the United States. Additionally, the ideologies that intelligent people support might be influenced by social norms. Woodley’s cultural mediation hypothesis proposes that that the highly intelligent are better at detecting and espousing the values that are normative at a particular time (Woodley, 2010). Hence, intellectuals might fluctuate in their support for left or right-wing views according to changing social norms.
In support of this, Woodley notes a study of white South Africans in the 1980s that found that higher cognitive ability was correlated with support for traditional conservative religious and political views, which were socially normative in that time and place. Woodley argues that since the 1960s, post-materialist values have become normative among intellectuals in much of the Western world. Hence apparent associations between left-liberal views and intelligence may reflect currently prevailing Western values.
The findings illustrate a number of key points. Firstly, highly intelligent individuals may actually support right-wing views, not just left-wing ones, contrary to claims that support for right-wing positions reflects a lack of intellectual sophistication. It seems fair to say then that not only liberals but conservatives (and those with other positions, such as libertarians) can have intellectually sophisticated reasons for their political views.
The second point is that categorising people simply as generally liberal or conservative may mask differences in people’s views on social versus economic issues. The results of Kemmelmeier’s study suggest that when people are asked if they are liberal or conservative, they may give more weight to their views on social issues (such as abortion and gay rights) than to their views on economic issues (such as taxation). Therefore, in order to better understand how political attitudes are related to intelligence, a two-dimensional model that separates social and economic attitudes (see The World’s Smallest Political Quiz for one example) may be preferable to the traditional yet overly simplistic left/right distinction.
Finally, the relationship between intelligence and political attitudes is most likely not fixed in some simple way, but probably changes across time and context.
 This could be visualised as a U-shaped distribution of intelligence across the political spectrum. That is, there was a peak of intelligence on the left side, a dip in the middle, and a rise towards the right side. The left side tended to have more highly intelligent people than the right though, in line with the linear trend.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
Image credit: EN2008
Other articles discussing intelligence or the psychology of political orientation
Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., Dowling, C. M., & Ha, S. E. (2010). Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts. American Political Science Review, 104(01), 111-133. doi: doi:10.1017/S0003055410000031
Kemmelmeier, M. (2008). Is there a relationship between political orientation and cognitive ability? A test of three hypotheses in two studies. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(8), 767-772. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.003
Prentice, D. A. (2012). Liberal Norms and Their Discontents. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 516-518. doi: 10.1177/1745691612454142
Rindermann, H., Flores-Mendoza, C., & Woodley, M. A. (2012). Political orientations, intelligence and education. Intelligence, 40(2), 217-225. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2011.11.005
Stankov, L. (2009). Conservatism and cognitive ability. Intelligence, 37(3), 294-304. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2008.12.007
Woodley, M. A. (2010). Are high-IQ individuals deficient in common sense? A critical examination of the ‘clever sillies’ hypothesis. Intelligence, 38(5), 471-480. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2010.06.002