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Intelligence and Sociopolitical Orientations

- January 25, 2008

Several years ago, I experienced fifteen minutes of fame as a consequence of writing a series of tongue-in-cheek papers that purported to provide scientific evidence that Democrats are stupid, ugly, and morally defective. Some Democrats weren’t at all amused, and some Republicans took it all quite seriously. (In fact, one day a long-lost cousin who is a rabid Republican called, absolutely thrilled, to tell me that Rush Limbaugh had just quoted me on the air.)

Several years later, as editor of the American Political Science Review, I stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest when I accepted for publication a paper on the genetic bases of political orientations. (Click here for a copy.)

So I should know better, but here I go again.

In a study (abstract here) reported in the latest issue of Psychological Science, Ian J. Deary, G. David Batty, and Catharine R. Gale begin by reviewing previous research on the link between intelligence and sociopolitical orientations. The balance of existing evidence, they note, “shows that people with higher cognitive ability tend to hold less authoritarian attitudes.” They immediately add, though, that most of this research has generated more heat than light, because it is based on research designs that leave that old bugaboo, the issue of causality, under a cloud. Are intelligence and sociopolitical attitudes components of a bundle of traits that vary together without being related to one another in any direct, cause-and-effect manner, or is there really a causal connection?

To date, studies of this issue have tended to be based on small, unrepresentative samples of respondents in cross-section surveys rather than panel studies, and haven’t always dealt adequately with the need to hold constant other factors, such as education and socioeconomic status. To try to overcome these problems, Deary, Batty, and Gale analyzed data from the British Cohort Study, a very large-scale panel study of individuals born in Britain during one particular week in April, 1970. Data on the personal and family characteristics of about half of these individuals, including their mental ability, were recorded at age 10, and at age 30 reinterviews were held that focused on the political and social attitudes of more than 7,000 members of this cohort, via questions pertaining to social liberalism, racism, political trust, and support for working women.

The study’s key finding is what Deary and his associates characterize as a “strong association between higher [mental ability] at age 10 and generally more liberal, nontraditional social attitudes at age 30,” even controlling for the effects of the other factors that they considered. This early intelligence-later attitudes connection could mean, as others have argued, that “those with greater cognitive skill are able to form more individualistic and open-minded attitudes than those of lesser cognitive ability,” or that people of higher ability read more and are therefore more likely to encounter and adopt anti-traditional views, or that smarter people are simply more likely to recognize what they shouldn’t tell a researcher. Whatever the exact cause of the effect, Deary et al. conclude, brighter 10-year-olds are, at age 30, more likely to articulate “a philosophy emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition, which is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines enlightenment.”