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Are racist people really dumber?

Studies show that people with low cognitive ability tend to be more racist.
Studies show that people with low cognitive ability tend to be more racist.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On election night in November of 2008, nearly all the highly paid pundits on television proclaimed that the election of Barack Obama proved that racism was a thing of the past in America. Many said Obama’s election was fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream that a man a man be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.

If we have discovered anything in the last five years, it is that the pundits were wrong. Racism and prejudice are not things of the past, but still part of the fabric of American political culture.

One aspect of that is that the fastest way to get an entrenched Republican conservative to go against their long-held beliefs in a policy is for President Obama to agree with them. Republicans attack Obama for proposing policies they overwhelmingly supported when Bush proposed the same exact policies.

Why do Republicans refuse to declare victory when the president comes around to their way of thinking? Is it due to the fact he is a Democrat, or because he is black? Scientific evidence indicates there is a link between prejudice and conservatism. Those studies show a connection between low IQ and prejudice and the influence of right-wing media.

More precisely, the studies find that “cognitive ability,” not necessarily IQ, is a predictor, if not a determiner, of prejudice and the proclivity for conservative politics.

Stephanie Pappas wrote in Live Science “There's no gentle way to put it: People who give in to racism and prejudice may simply be dumb, according to a new study...”

The issue is not that red and blue, however. Many conservatives have high IQs and advanced degrees; many liberals can barely read. Nevertheless, the connection between intelligence and political views, particularly prejudice, has been made by social scientists for the last 50 years. This can not be dismissed out of hand.

A study conducted by Dr. Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri, published in the journal Psychological Science, found cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. In the abstract of their study, Hodson and Busseri concluded:

"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... we found that lower general intelligence... in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology."

Dr. Gordon Hodson, the study's lead author, told Live Science the finding represented evidence of a vicious cycle: People of low intelligence gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, which stress resistance to change and, in turn, prejudice.

Why might less intelligent people be drawn to conservative ideologies? Dr. Hodson said “Because such ideologies feature ‘structure and order’ that make it easier to comprehend a complicated world. Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice,” he added.

Dr. Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia psychologist, agreed. "Reality is complicated and messy. Ideologies get rid of the messiness and impose a simpler solution. So, it may not be surprising that people with less cognitive capacity will be attracted to simplifying ideologies," he told The Huffington Post.

Dr. Hodson said that people who have little contact with outside groups tend to get their information from “trusted” media sources. For many persons with less cognitive capacity, that tends to be conservative sources. Most Republicans in Congress come from very white districts offering little opportunity for contact with minorities.

This is nothing new. In 1969, a professor at Denver’s Metropolitan State College, Mildred Biddick, did a study for Denver’s Community Relations Commission. She wrote that a person tends to listen to what they know and agree with and to those persons whom he trusts, and to block out or cut off the rest. This protects the status quo in which the individual has a stake. It causes insecurity with things he sees as change which is threatening either to the self or his status. She added that people who lack the opportunity to know others as persons accept stereotypes which offer basis for building real understanding.

The bottom line is there is a connection between a person’s cognitive capacity, which along with their proclivity to listen to the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, in many ways perpetuates prejudice—to the point of rejection one’s own ideas just because a black president endorses them.

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