Stupidity, conservatism, and racism: more than meets the eye

So this morning I scrutinized a study by Hodson and Busseri that purports to show that the link between low cognitive ability and prejudice is moderated largely by political ideology; namely, that stupidity makes you conservative, and conservativism makes you racist. They conducted two experiments to test their model, and the results of their study supported the hypothesis. Hooray! More science with which to thrash conservatives, right?

Well, as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, the results of this study may be a bit Decepticon deceptive.

Racist Starscream sez: I'm not Racist, I just think Autobots need to be taught to value work instead of energon stamps

Okay, enough of that. Welllll… maybe just one more:

Racist Starscream sez: I'm not racist, I very clearly said that I hate "Auto-blah"

Starscream 2012!

As much fun as it would be to simply say “case closed, conservatives are racist cuz ur dum”, it would be decidedly un-skeptical. There were a number of things that jumped out at me about this paper, and I’m going to try and detail where I think the authors over-step their conclusions.

Defining cognitive ability

So this one is several different kinds of perilous. The authors propose a mechanism between generalized intelligence (g) and prejudice. I have no idea how one would go about measuring generalized intelligence, since we don’t even have a good definition for the concept of what intelligence actually is. Colloquially, we can think of it as the ability to adapt to new tasks, but that’s not what they measure. In the cohort studies, they use the results for tests of verbal ability and the ability to see the similarities between symbols and shapes. While these definitely relate to certain kinds of cognitive processing, they certainly do not measure the kind of interpersonal aptitude that would be a determining factor in racism, or what they call “abstract reasoning”:

…adopting another person’s perspective requires advanced cognitive processing, abstraction, and interpretation, particularly when the target is an out-group member (and thus “different”).

They do not measure this at all. While the second study is a bit better, they make no effort whatsoever to demonstrate that the two methods of measuring g are in any way comparable. They just expect us to take it on their say-so that both methods are valid ways of measuring global cognitive ability. For the same reason I am suspicious of studies that “prove” that Africans aren’t as smart as Europeans, I am suspicious of studies that “prove” that conservativism is a product of lack of cognitive ability.

Defining outgroup antipathy

If you read my series on System Justification Theory (and you should, because it’s pretty fantastic), you’ll know that I view explicit racism as the product of giving in to implicit prejudices that everyone has to some degree. Measurement of overt racism is, therefore, a pretty bad way of measuring actual racist ideology. What it is good at measuring is beliefs in people who are not shy about being racist (often people who adhere to conservative beliefs). Unfortunately, this is precisely what the authors have done in the first study: they just straight-up ask people “hey, are you racist?”:

Attitudes toward racial out-groups were assessed in the NCDS and the BCS with the same five items (e.g., “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races” and “I wouldn’t mind if a family of a different race moved next door”; αs = .82; Deary et al., 2008; Schoon et al., 2010).

With nakedly loaded items like that, you can pretty much guarantee that responses from liberals (even racist liberals) won’t reflect any outgroup hatred.

The second study is even worse. They ask respondents for similarly overt and loaded questions and then also ask how many gay people they know. This is essentially a trap to catch conservatives and exclude liberals who have “a gay friend”. Considering that it’s already pretty unlikely that gay people will be found associating in strongly conservative circles (both by reasons of exclusion and self-selection out), this study has no ability to control for the kind of double-counting that might run rampant through their findings.

Pro tip: measuring prejudice is hard. Make sure you do a good job before publishing a study like this.

Failing to control for environmental factors

So it’s an open question about whether or not the previous two criticisms meaningfully impact the results. After all, there is some face validity to the measurements of intelligence they used, and asking for overt racism will at least tap in to any subconscious racism a bit. It’s the trend that matters, not the numbers so much, right? However, there is a glaring omission in this study: the authors do absolutely nothing to control for social, geographical, or other environmental factors that may explain both conservativism and prejudice. For example, growing up surrounded by other people who share the same ideas will lead you to adopt them regardless of your intelligence. Throw in a low immigrant population or a lack of opportunities for upward social mobility, and you have the perfect recipe for both conservativism and prejudice.

Are these socio/environmental factors a moderating effect on the relationship between ideology and prejudice? We have no idea. The authors don’t include anything that we could use to measure that. Part of good science involves excluding other explanations for a given phenomenon. While the authors have done some of that, they have not done a thorough job. While I sympathize that they can’t control for everything, they don’t even mention this in their discussion (although, to their credit, they do head-fake in the direction of “social factors”). They push right past that caveat, however, to assert that this study is sufficient demonstration that “cognitive ability is a reliable predictor of prejudice”, which is not supported by their data.

Concluding thoughts

Science is hard. If you’re going to stick your dick in a hornet’s nest, make sure you’ve got your shit covered first.

Real concluding thoughts

This study makes some very broad conclusions based on science that is not as strong as the authors wish it was. While I think there is merit to their hypothesis, and while I understand and appreciate their desire to see cognitive ability included in predictive models of prejudice, the paper on its own was bound to stir up controversy. In their failure to vouchsafe their findings by apportioning the strength of their conclusions to the strength of the evidence, they have exposed themselves to predictable and reasonable criticism and dismissal of their thesis.

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  1. Enkidum says

    If you’re going to stick your dick in a hornet’s nest, make sure you’ve got your shit covered first.

    Yeah… there’s an unfortunate image due to the mixed metaphor here :)…

    Anyways, good post as always. Question: would you buy a study like this that had better measures of both intelligence and prejudice? How about correlating a wide range of intelligence measures (verbal reasoning, IQ, abstraction tests, etc etc etc) with performance on BOTH implicit attitude tests and explicit declarations of racist attitudes?

  2. unbound says

    Good post.

    In addition to the glaring flaws you note, I always keep in mind that this is just another statistical meta-analysis. Even if they did a better job accounting for environmental factors and a better job at measuring, in the end it is simply an observation of a group. Without substantially more investigation into individual cases to determine why everyone doesn’t fall into the generalizations being put forward, the study doesn’t do any good except maybe create better education policy decisions (I wouldn’t hold my breath over that); more likely it is only good to help a company sell products since they don’t particularly care about individuals. Looking to sell something that only stupid people would buy? Wrap it up in something conservative for better sales percentages…

    In other words, even if the meta-analysis took care of all the flaws, the best you would get is something along the lines of 70% of stupid people are conservative and racist. So if you meet a stupid person, you still don’t know if they are conservative and/or racist. You only know that they are likely to be so. Same goes for meeting a smart person; perhaps the odds are better than 50% that they won’t be conservative and/or racist, but you still don’t really know.

    Seems that this meta-analysis (like most of them) is really only scratching the surface of the issue. A long, long way to go to determine cause.

  3. says

    This is not a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is an amalgamation of the statistical findings of a number of studies that ask similar questions. This is a pair of experiments done by re-analyzing extant datasets – not the same thing.

    I also disagree that finding a trend in part of a population is not useful information, if that is indeed what they’ve found.

  4. says

    Yes, if they had done a better job establishing the construct validity of their intelligence and prejudice measures, I’d be far more impressed and willing to accept their findings. As it is, I think they’re on to something – I just think they overstated their case.

  5. Cliff Hendroval says

    I’ve seen references to this study, although I haven’t read anyone really analyze it before your post. My feeling about studies like this is the same as my feeling towards religion – if it backs up your existing beliefs, it should be looked at skeptically.

  6. Pteryxx says

    I’d prefer implicit association alone as a measure, actually, unless explicit racism questions were separated out to the very end. Asking explicit questions about implicit beliefs can cue the subject into altering the very factors you’re asking about.

  7. Enkidum says

    Yeah, surely it would be better to keep them separate, and see if they independently predict variance in whatever racism factors they use. Of course this is all just pie in the sky…

  8. Cynthia says

    So, the argument is that racist people are stupid and conservative. You point out the flaws with the intelligence definition, but what about the conservative definition? What does conservative mean in this context?

    I will read the whole paper (because I like to check facts and you thoughtfully provided the link) and that’s a major point I’ll be looking for. I’m curious as to how you would define conservative? The political parties (in the US) seem to have lousy views that boil down to “we’re correct, they’re not”, which really doesn’t help anyone much. You can see that, just look at the presidential race this year. But no one seems to have a clear definition of liberal or conservative!

    I know it’s off topic, I’m just interested in your thoughts on it. So much of what you write is close to my thoughts (but much better expressed!), so I’d like to hear where you are on this. Maybe your prose can illuminate the issue for me.

  9. David Marjanović says

    I’m surprised the authors concluded a lack of intelligence instead of a lack of knowledge.

    But no one seems to have a clear definition of liberal or conservative!

    Liberal: what would be considered conservative pretty much everywhere else on Earth.

    Conservative: everything to the right of that – but, strangely, much more liberal than “liberal” on the economy.

  10. Flex says

    When I read papers like this I wonder if the investigators know ahead of time that the paper is going to get eviscerated.

    If they are aware that their conclusions are not strongly supported by the evidence they presented (and I read several papers a year in Science where I feel that this is the case), then are they overstating their conclusions in a effort to get published? Or is there something going on in the editing of the paper where (Possibly for length/word count reasons) the qualifiers they originally put in about the conclusion were removed? Since I’m not familiar with how the scientific publishing world operates, as strictly a lay reader of scientific journals, these are a couple possible explanations which do not necessarily justify calling the authors fools.

    Of course, there is another possibility as well, and that is that confirmation bias is occurring. The authors may already have an opinion which a lower standard of evidence satisfies their desire to reach the conclusion they arrived at. If the authors of a questionable (or clearly inaccurate) study vigorously defend it (to the point of absurdity [See Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray for example]), I tend to think that this is more likely the case.

  11. says

    I think the point they want to make is that cognitive ability plays a role in opinion formation, which includes opinions about out-groups. I think the evidence they have is sufficient for that conclusion – it would be pretty difficult to conclude anything else. It’s not a badly-done study, I just question the strength of the conclusions they can draw from the limited evidence they gathered. In my opinion, they led with their chin quite a bit.

  12. Flex says

    In regard to how to define conservatives. It is probably important to recognize that a conservative in the U.S.A. can be a member of the Democratic, Republican, or any other political party. There are quite a few Democrats who are conservatives in the sense that they have conservative attitudes and mind-sets. (For what it’s worth, there are significantly less liberals in the Republican party than conservatives in the Democratic party.)

    Having read at least a two dozen different books over the last decade trying to define what a conservative means (to the point where they are all starting to sound very repetitious), I believe that I would define the conservative mindset as follows:

    Modern American conservatives appear to have two primary characteristics: authoritarianism and a sense of loss (often of status/privilege but not always). I believe this fits fairly well into the system justification theory that you are promoting (which I need to spend more time looking at, your excellent introductory posts notwithstanding). Both appear to be necessary.

    Racists feel that they will/have lost standing in their community when Black/Asian/Hindi/etc. are accorded the same standing as they have enjoyed. The “I even let them use my bathroom” remark indicates these racists perceive they have a higher standing in their community and ‘graciously’ allow someone of an inferior status to share their private facilities. I don’t think they understand why they are ridiculed when in their opinion they are being overly generous.

    Religious conservatives perceive a loss in the standing of their god. There is no higher authority for these people than their god; none. So when they encounter people of different faiths, even of the same nominal religion, who insist upon (and are backed up by the law) equal treatment of a different god, the authority of their god is diminished, engendering a sense of loss. The fact that an atheist cares absolutely nothing about their god does not make any sense to them. With other theists they can at least make an effort to convince themselves that the other god or gods are manifestations of the same one they submit to. So they ascribe to atheists the idea that they are denying god or worship some other authority. The idea that we could care less about a deity (except when they force us to consider the matter), that their deity is irrelevant to us, creates a huge sense of loss.

    Nationality is another area. A lot of conservatives are incredibly patriotic, to the point of insanity (and beyond). They have an opinion of what being American means, and it includes (among other things) a WASP culture and English as the primary language. As they see it, immigrant communities (which have existed for as long as the U.S.A. has been a country [and before]), are not only given equal status among the law, but welcomed by the ‘intelligentsia’ of the nation. Celebrated in the name of diversity and cultural inclusiveness. The sense of loss is their pride in what they think their country stands for.

    Of course none of us go through life without occasionally having a feeling of loss. Usually we work through it, often we find something good in what replaces it. We do not dwell on it.

    However, when an authority comes along who suggests that the authority can do something to replace that which was lost, people will grab at the chance, even if the message is veiled. A politician who says they will cut welfare isn’t saying they want poor people to starve, the politician is saying that if they are elected they will relegate the blacks to a lower status level. Which is what the bigot really wants to hear.

    In this far too long missive, I’m suggesting that conservatives are not trying to prevent change, but prevent (or restore perceived) loss. They are not trying to prevent entitlement, but save the entitlements they have (at whatever level in society they are). They want to maintain their privilege, status, and wealth; and are less concerned with growing these than with the possibility of losing them.

    And, of course, their entire world-view is threatened by the internet where they cannot avoid seeing of different cultures, languages, and people. People who are largely equal in their access and in their ability to express opinions no matter what their gender, age, color of their skin, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and educational level. While racism, misogyny, intolerance, patriotism, and religious fervor are common on the internet, so are criticisms of all of them.

    Well, this is about the 3rd far too long comment I’ve written for your blog. The others I’ve refrained from posting, mainly because I don’t really have time to engage in a follow-up discussion. I enjoy the dialog that occurs in the comment threads, and I regret that with my new job (well, 2 years next month), I cannot engage in the discussion as much as I would like. This message took about 4 hours to write because of constant interruptions. However, if it’s any consolation to you, I have greatly enjoyed reading your posts over the past couple of months.

  13. says

    One assumption the author makes is that gay people are unlikely to hang out with conservatives. Who says? There is a fairly large bloc of gay conservatives in the Republican party. Do we discard that? I’m usually thought of as conservative, at least I’m on the “right” whatever that is, and I have a lot of gay friends who don’t seem to have a problem hanging around ME (I’m straight, BTW, if that makes a diff). Lots of holes in this, from the basic premises standpoint.

  14. says

    One glaring proof this study provided was here

    there was a simultaneous indirect effect through increased intergroup contact: Individuals who had a greater capacity for abstract reasoning experienced more contact with out-groups, and more contact predicted less prejudice

    [emphasis mine, you can see what I’m getting at]

    I appreciate they attempt to model out the effects of contact in their study – I’m just not sure how feasible that is, or how much sense it makes to do so.

    I take issue with the assumption that ‘abstract reasoning’ creates more contact with out-groups – a lot of integration (of ethnic minorities and homosexuals) in the UK (and I imagine other places) takes place primarily by virtue of town planning; minority groups end up in areas of cheap housing (in the case of homosexual groups, they often end up in cities with low-cost central business tenancies – e.g. Manchester, parts of London)

    This brings minority groups directly into contact with poor, ill-educated white people – who could be assumed by this study to be both stupid and conservative (and many of which are). In my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience, those groups which are most integrated – usually through schooling, but also simply growing up in an integrated area – become less racist.

    Some (anecodtal) evidence:

    Inner city Manchester has experienced several notable waves of immigration, black-Caribbean in the 70s, Asian in the 90s and Eastern European in the late 00s.
    The elderly are often openly racist towards anyone not white; white adults in their 50s and 60s are accepting and welcoming of black residents, but both white and black adults of this age group are like to be openly racist towards Asians.
    Those in their 20s and 30s have almost completely accepted and integrated with the black community (and a significant proportion are now mixed race), and are unlikely to exhibit racist attitudes towards Asians – but many will be racist towards Eastern Europeans.

    This is still an area of high poverty, moderate to high unemployment and relatively high crime – not things that indicate good educational standards – but it’s an area where people who would be expected by this model to be racist and conservative (due to ‘lower intelligence’) are integrating – or at least each new generation seems to be integrating.

    (as a side point, politically it’s an area which has voted Labour (socialism-lite) for generations – something which also plays havoc with the ‘lack of education = conservatism’ model; all the poorest bits of the UK regularly vote Labour or Liberal (left wing parties))

  15. minxatlarge says

    Flex for guest blogger? I’d only add that a ‘sense of loss’ seems like a good case for ‘violation of the status quo’ under Systems Justification Theory. It goes a long way towards explaining the ‘take the country back’ rhetoric. Humans are loss averse; it would be a good nerve to poke if you wanted a strong reaction.

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