Conservatives are as smart as liberals

One "urban legend" which is in common circulation among my friends is that liberals are smarter than conservatives. From my own personal experience this seems plausible, and I doubt I'm the only one as evidenced by the furious speed at which the "Bush voting states have lower IQs" meme spread around the blogosphere several years ago. But is this true? I've seen enough data to suggest that this really isn't so, and my psychologist friends have told me the biggest predictor of liberalism isn't IQ, but a strong tendency toward "openness" on personal tests.

But I just couldn't leave it alone...I decided to look at the General Social Survey and see what it tells us about political ideology and intelligence. The GSS has a variable, POLVIEWS, where people are classified as extremely liberal to extremely conservative where those states are equivalent on a 1 to 7 scale. In other words, if you are 4 you are a moderate, 1 extremely liberal, and 7 extremely conservative. The WORDSUM variable just measures the number of correct answers on a vocabulary test of 10 words. 0 means you're semi-sentient and 10 means you have a good vocabulary.

Instead of producing garish bar graphs I thought I would just look at correlations. Though political ideology is categorical here, it is nicely translated into a numerical scale where rank order exists. The "higher" numbers are more conservative, the "lower" ones more liberal. For vocabulary there is a natural numerical scale. The question: do political ideology and vocabulary track each other at all? Yes, but hardly. The raw results are below, but I don't really think that the story ends here, so read on.

Correlation between political views and correct answers on vocabulary test
    Correlation Constraint
WORDSUM 0-10   -0.03 United States
"Everyone"   -0.03 New England
    -0.06 Mid Atlantic
    -0.02 East North Central
    -0.04 West North Central
    -0.04 South Atlantic
    0.11 East South Central
    -0.10 West South Central
    0.01 Mountain
    -0.05 Pacific
       
WORDSUM 0-4   0.06 United States
"Stupid"   0.07 New England
    0.04 Mid Atlantic
    -0.01 East North Central
    -0.01 West North Central
    0.09 South Atlantic
    0.11 East South Central
    0.08 West South Central
    0.04 Mountain
    0.13 Pacific
       
WORDSUM 5-10   -0.06 United States
"Intelligent"   -0.03 New England
    -0.07 Mid Atlantic
    -0.07 East North Central
    -0.06 West North Central
    -0.04 South Atlantic
    0.11 East South Central
    0.04 West South Central
    0.01 Mountain
    -0.10 Pacific
       
WORDSUM 0-10   -0.13 Graduate
    -0.10 Bachelor
    -0.02 Junior College
    -0.01 High School
    0.02 Less Than High School
       

The table should be rather intelligible to you. I sliced & diced the data and analysis in a few different ways. The rightmost columns shows how I limited the data set by region or educational attainment, while the leftmost column shows that I constrained the vocabulary spectrum to the less intelligent and more intelligent. I wanted to see if interesting patterns were masked by throwing all the data together into one lump.

i-ae92d65795a41fd351dba55fad531c8b-conservlibwordsum.jpgI think there are signals being obscured. Note that the overall correlation coefficient of political ideology and vocabulary results is a nearly non-existent -0.03. If it's a linear system you'd square -0.03 to determine how much of the variation of Y you could predict from X, pretty much nothing. But look what happens when I take the less intelligent and separate them from the more intelligent; the signs switch! (a negative would indicate that conservatives tend to be duller than liberals, and a positive the inverse) Nevertheless, the correlation coefficient is really, really, small (it averages out with a negative sign because there are actually considerably more people in the 5-10 WORDSUM interval). But notice what happens as you increase educational attainment: the difference starts to show up significantly at the graduate school level. The chart to the left shows that the frequency distribution of scores for liberals and conservatives vary; liberals exhibit more variance. This was what my hunch was, extremely fiscal liberals are probably often poor and unintelligent, extremely social liberals are probably moderately affluent and intelligent. Conservatives on the other hand have a bigger mode than liberals, they're concentrated closer to the center of the distribution.

The WORDSUM variable really doesn't push things to the tails very much. 6.5% of the sample received a 10. When we think of pointy-headed liberals culturally I think we're assuming Harvard or Stanford, but the student bodies there are way above 6.5%. As you know moderate differences in distribution can loom very large at the extremes, so I wouldn't be surprised if some of the perception by elite liberals that conservatives are stupid might simply have to do with the fact that at their cognitive station the imbalance might be noticeable (it might be that at such prestigious universities political indoctrination/consciousness raising by the Leftish professoriate is especially effective). One might also consider the possibility that if half of the top 0.25% of students go to 10 elite schools which are very liberal, and the other half go to 100 less elite schools, you might get a critical mass effect so that very smart liberals socialize together and produce a subculture where cognitive status is jockeyed for and its exhibition expected. In contrast, smart conservatives who went to State U for whatever reason (e.g, perhaps they had Christian conservative qualms about applying to bastions of liberalism?) might become entrepreneurs or successful middle managers who don't live in a subculture where their intelligence is as salient.

Shorter version: There isn't a large difference in intelligence between liberals and conservatives, on average. But it might be that the small differences are highly significant in our day to day life.

Note: All the above applies only to whites as I restricted the data set.

i-b633fe4b4121163029d385301614b079-votebyed.jpgBonus: From 2006 Exit Poll of US elections

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It really isn't about intelligence, its more about your ability to think on your own and your compassion for people not of your immediate group.

Recalls the male-female difference, where the distribution for men (like the distribution for liberals) also has fatter tails. (Though the sex-IQ link doesn't seem to show up on the wordsum test.)

It really isn't about intelligence, its more about your ability to think on your own and your compassion for people not of your immediate group.

That depends on whether people who think that way in fact constitute their own immediate group:)

Horace Something-or-Other, an American essayist, had an excellent rejoined to this issue. He said, it's not that most conservatives are stupid; it's that stupid people tend to be conservative. Or something to that effect. I'd replace "stupid" with "willfully ignorant."

Openness correlated with IQ?

yes. i think it is actually. a friend has a model where suggests that VERY HIGH intellectual creativity has to emerge from the intersection of high IQ and high openness.

It really isn't about intelligence, its more about your ability to think on your own and your compassion for people not of your immediate group.

Or your ability to feign that compassion.

"Of the top 25 states where people give an above average percent of their income, 24 were red states in the last presidential election.

Arthur Brooks, the author of 'Who Really Cares,' says that 'when you look at the data, it turns out the conservatives give about 30 percent more.' He adds, 'And incidentally, conservative-headed families make slightly less money.'"

http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2682730

Of course, all those charitable conservatives probably attach notes to their checks which read, "Please ensure this money only benefits heterosexual white married couples who own guns and live in my home state." I know I do!

Now if you'll excuse me, I must begin the meditations necessary to purge myself of all independent thoughts, as it's nearly time for my four-hour daily dose of the Fox News Channel and I want to ensure that my mind is a blank, willing slate.

From last year:

I looked at this in February on backchannel. Republicans had higher IQs, were more 'proscience' in values, and did better on science questions. But the two parties had different biases; Republicans unsurprisingly subscribed to more nonsense about evolution and global warming. Democrats were prone to think of all natural interventions as harmful.

By Jason Malloy (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

This seems to be in marked contrast to the campaign styles we see displaced this year. Democrats campaigns contain a significant amount of policy detail, and seem designed to appeal to policy-wonk types. Republicans are concerned with looking and sounding like Joe Average, and with connecting to the less conscious emotional part of the voters brains.

Clearly on an issue such as "the bible is the inerrant word of god", versus, "the bible is a product of human culture", I would expect to see a very high correlation with the current liberal/conservative divide in the USA. I suspect we have some somewhat harder to test thinking style differences, such as how much one trusts gut instinct versus rational thought. Or how carefully people consider the detailed consistency of an argument, versus the author as a means of determined correctness/fallacy of an issue. Perhaps if you dig a bit deeper, you can find some interesting correlations.

Democrats campaigns contain a significant amount of policy detail, and seem designed to appeal to policy-wonk types. Republicans are concerned with looking and sounding like Joe Average, and with connecting to the less conscious emotional part of the voters brains.

This is due to the nature of parties' basic missions. Democrats are there to help certain groups use government to extract money from other groups - urban minorities from whites in the suburbs, union members from corporations, lower-earning taxpayers from higher earning taxpayers, etc. To do this, Democrats must promote "policies" that effect these transfers, and then convince voters to think these policies will benefit them. Republicans, on the other hand, whose goal is to keep these transfers from happening, eschew policy prescriptions and instead focus on getting as many voters as possible to think of themselves as being in the groups from whom the Democrats are going to take money.

(There are obviously exceptions - farm subsidies, military spending - but the Democrats are not exactly pounding on these themselves.)

actually something interesting i've found out is that of national merit semifinalists or of rhodes scholars, a huge percentage (90%?) of them score as type N on MBTI (and type N is pretty much openness).

By Simfish InquilineKea (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

Also this is just a hunch of mine, but I think people who are more open are also more likely to blog and to express themselves (whereas more "conservative" people probably keep to themselves more)

By InquilineKea (not verified) on 06 Sep 2008 #permalink

actually something interesting i've found out is that of national merit semifinalists or of rhodes scholars, a huge percentage (90%?) of them score as type N on MBTI (and type N is pretty much openness).

where'd you get that data?

(whereas more "conservative" people probably keep to themselves more)

you mean keep their opinions to themselves, right?

...so I wouldn't be surprised if some of the perception by elite liberals that conservatives are stupid ...

A lot of anecdotal stories of conservatives at liberal institutions faking being liberal, simply to avoid being graded down. I know in grad school my Marxist profs were very displeased by the 'Ron Paul' bumper sticker on my cubicle (this was back in the 80s).

Liberals may simply not be aware of the conservatives in their midst.

And my Texan girlfriend got threatened with expulsion by one of her lecturers because she didn't support George Bush

Openness is regarded by most psychologists (eg. Daniel Nettle, 'Personality', Oxford University Press, 2007) as _by far_ the least-plausible and worst-validated of the Big 5 personality traits.

I would guess that the (mostly false) perception that leftists are smarter than rightists comes from large leftist majorities in specific ruling elite public sphere occupations: especially the media, education (esp. higher education) and public administration.

And my Texan girlfriend got threatened with expulsion by one of her lecturers because she didn't support George Bush.

How did the professor threaten her? Not doubting your story, just curious as to the circumstances behind it and the professor's behavior. He sounds like a douche.

I have a friend who works with a major defense contractor. At one point that her boss reminded the staff in all seriousness to vote Republican because there is the perception that Republican administrations are better for the defense contracting business.

""actually something interesting i've found out is that of national merit semifinalists or of rhodes scholars, a huge percentage (90%?) of them score as type N on MBTI (and type N is pretty much openness)."
where'd you get that data?"

http://www2.gsu.edu/~dschjb/wwwmbti.html (not sure how rigorous the study is though)

"you mean keep their opinions to themselves, right?"
Yes

By InquilineKea (not verified) on 08 Sep 2008 #permalink

1. At least when I looked at colleges in the 1970s, there was a clear correlation between the ratio of a college's average SAT Math score to its average SAT Verbal score and its politics: science and engineering dominated Rice had a much higher average Math than Verbal SAT score and was quite a bit more conservative politically than, say, artsy-fartsy Bennington, which had much higher Verbal than Math scores. So, it would be likely that a better, more balanced IQ test than this pure vocabulary test on the GSS would show more conservatives at the right edge of the bell curve.

2. This is all straight out of Stuff White People Like -- when white liberals say that "liberals" are smarter than "conservatives," what they are thinking about are "white liberals" and "white conservatives." And that's more or less true. There's not a huge difference, but white liberals tend to be a little smarter than white conservatives, especially verbally. What this shows is that white liberals don't ever think about nonwhites, except in the context of helping them score superiority points over white conservatives.

My theory is that, all else being equal, people who have more educational credentials than income will be more liberal than people who have more income than educational credentials.

Come-on, everything is much simpler, everything is about money.
American middle class is very strong in their belief that every one has to earn his living. So they are always against a strong government, trying to redistribute the income.
But the lowest end and the highest end of the society, they are interested in it as potential recipients or distributors of wealth.