What makes people adopt conservative or liberal political views? Why are some individuals drawn to – or turned off by – certain religions or spiritual beliefs? What determines whether someone will support racism?
Academic research suggests that intelligence and education play a role in the way ideas and attitudes form. A 2008 study published in Psychological Science, for example, indicates a strong association between children’s general intelligence and their social attitudes as adults. The researchers learned that children with higher intelligence levels at age 10 tended to have more liberal, nontraditional attitudes at age 30. Another group of scholars examined the issue of intelligence and religiosity. Their 2013 study involved an analysis of 63 previous studies on the issue and found that individuals who are more intelligent tend to be less religious and demonstrate less religious behavior. The trend was stronger among college students and the general population than for individuals younger than college age.
A 2016 study published in Social Problems takes on the issue of intelligence and racism. Geoffrey T. Wodtke of the University of Toronto wanted to know whether higher cognitive abilities influence a person’s racial tolerance and commitment to racial equality. For his study, “Are Smart People Less Racist? Verbal Ability, Anti-Black Prejudice, and the Principle-Policy Paradox,” Wodtke focused specifically on verbal ability, or the skills needed to understand and analyze language-based information. He analyzed data collected from 1972 to 2010 through the General Social Survey (GSS) — a repeated, cross-sectional survey of the attitudes and demographic characteristics of U.S. residents. The GSS regularly includes an abbreviated version of the Gallup-Thorndike Verbal Intelligence Test, a short vocabulary test designed for use in survey research. Because the GSS had not collected data from sufficiently large samples of racial minorities, this study examines the responses given by a total of 44,873 white survey participants.
The key findings include:
- Survey respondents with better scores on the verbal ability test were much less likely to have a negative view of black people’s intelligence and work ethic. For example, 45.7 percent of respondents who scored the lowest on the test reported that they think “blacks are lazy.” About one-quarter (28.8 percent) of the highest scorers agreed with the statement.
- Respondents with higher test scores were less likely to oppose black-white intermarriage and having black neighbors. Twenty-eight percent of those scoring in the highest one-third of test takers said they oppose intermarriage compared to 46.7 percent of those in the bottom third of test takers.
- White survey participants generally were more likely to support opportunity-enhancing policies such as open housing laws and tax incentives for businesses in black communities than redistributive policies such as racial preferences in employment and government aid for black people.
- A small portion of all respondents said they support racial preferences in employment. But those with the highest verbal test scores were less likely to support racial preferences than those with the lowest scores. About 13 percent of respondents with top scores reported supporting racial preferences in employment compared to 8.2 percent of those who received middle-range scores and 15.2 percent who performed worst on the exam.
- There is a general disconnect across all ability levels when it comes to views on racial segregation and discrimination and support for policies intended to redress those issues. For example, 88.8 percent of respondents said they think black and white students should attend the same schools. However, 23.2 percent said they support busing programs intended to integrate segregated school districts.
- Differences in attitude by ability level are less pronounced among respondents who grew up before the American civil rights movement. The author states that “higher verbal ability is closely linked to rejection of overtly prejudicial attitudes among cohorts socialized during or after the 1950s and 1960s.”
The study is the first to estimate the impact of verbal ability — one dimension of intelligence — on racial attitudes. But the author notes that the question of whether smart people are less racist does not have a simple answer. White people with lower verbal test scores as well as high-scoring white people who were born earlier in the 20th century have expressed racial attitudes that are akin to “old-fashioned racism,” Wodtke states. While white people with higher abilities generally give more liberal responses about questions related to anti-black prejudice and support for racial equality, they do not necessarily demonstrate liberal attitudes when it comes to policies designed to remedy racial inequality. The results of this study, according to Wodtke, “at the very least … cast doubt on the argument that cognitive ability is inherently liberalizing.”
Related research: A 2014 study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, “Explaining Dehumanization Among Children: The Interspecies Model of Prejudice,” explores prejudices and racial dehumanization among children. A 2011 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “The Sword’s Other Edge: Perceptions of Discrimination and Racial Policy Opinion after Obama,” compares individual perceptions of racial discrimination before and after President Obama’s election.
Keywords: racism, prejudice, white supremacy, affirmative action, racial conflict, IQ, intelligence, racial equality, liberalism