by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
February 9, 2012
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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If you are a psychologist, and you want to start a fight, it's hard to go wrong with putting out a study that concludes that the combination of low intelligence and socially conservative beliefs makes a person more likely to give in to racism and prejudice.
That's what researchers at Brock University in Ontario found through a recent study - if you are a child with low intelligence, you are more likely to be a bigot as an adult.
At the same time, low-intelligence adults tend to be more socially conservative, and following a political ideology that stresses hierarchy, obedience to authority, and resistant to change makes you more likely to be a bigot.
"Prejudice is extremely complex and multifaceted, making it critical that any factors contributing to bias are uncovered and understood," psychologist Gordon Hodson, the lead researcher in the study, told LiveScience.com last week.
The trick is figuring out why prejudice exists.
You don't need to be a psychologist to notice that prejudice is more common among conservatives than among those on other points on the political spectrum. Any pollster can back that observation up with hard data.
At the same time, the opposite is not true. Liberals are not necessarily more intelligent or more tolerant than conservatives.
"There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals," Hodson said.
The Brock researchers focused on social conservatism, as opposed to economic or political conservatism, and began with this hypothesis: "Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups."
They did an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom intelligence tests and a series of statements to measure social conservative attitudes.
The test contained statements such as "family life suffers if mum is working full-time" and "schools should teach children to obey authority." From there, the test captured attitudes about race using statements such as "I wouldn't mind working with people from other races."
Researchers found a correlation between having a low intelligence in childhood and holding prejudicial attitudes in adulthood, and the relationship linking the two was social conservatism.
In a second data set based on U.S. testing, Brock researchers also found a link between poor abstract reasoning skills and homophobia.
The Brock researchers also found that people with lower cognitive abilities were more likely to have contact with people with other races, and thus more likely to be racially biased.
So, does this mean that people who might have trouble dealing with the complexity of the modern world are more likely to be social conservatives?
"Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order," Hodson said. "Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice."
The researchers concluded that "our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit under-appreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models."
That is easier said than done.
It is clear that the people who are least able to handle nuance and complexity are the ones most likely to embrace the certainties of religion and authoritarian movements. But how do you convince people who are hardened in their attitudes to embrace difference and celebrate diversity?
That's why I'm more inclined to believe that it's nurture, rather than nature, that creates bigotry. Put a child in an environment with little intellectual stimulation. Give that child parents who are resentful and uneducated. Teach that child to fear anyone who is different. And you you will usually - not always, becase some children rebel - end up with a bigot.
Conversely, take that same child with the same parents and same socioeconomic background, but instead expose them to different ideas and different ways of life. Teach them to see beyond themselves, and help them learn the power of empathy for and understanding of others. Chances are, this child will not grow up to be a bigot.
Conservatives may call this study a smear, but it's a bit of scientific backing for the lyrics that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote so many years ago in their musical "South Pacific":
When the time comes that we stop teaching those lessons, no matter where we are on the political spectrum, we will be a much better country than we are now.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). In 2007, the Vermont Press Assn. chose him as the state's best editorial writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.