We're Only Human

Is Racism Just a Form of Stupidity?

Photo credit: velo_city via Flickr.

Photo credit: velo_city via Flickr.

I think that a lot of us are shying away from an obvious truth, that the kind of blatant racial prejudice we are witnessing in Ferguson, Missouri, has everything to do with stupidity.

I’m talking about low intelligence, lack of mental ability, cognitive rigidity. The Ferguson racists may be a lot of other things—hateful, insecure—but let’s not sugar-coat what most fair-minded thinkers believe in their hearts: A person of intelligence cannot embrace such authoritarian and racist views.

Intelligence is a scientific concept, something scientists can measure, and have for a long time.  And interestingly, this connection between stupidity and prejudice once seemed obvious to social scientists as well. Early theorists suggested a link between low mental ability and prejudicial thinking, and gathered some strongly suggestive evidence to support that view. But there were some knotty methodological and statistical problems that hampered this early line of study, not to mention a huge wave of political correctness, and it was largely abandoned.

But not entirely. A small cadre of psychological scientists have continued over the years to explore the controversial connection between low intelligence and prejudice, and at this point they have overcome most of the methodological barricades, allowing them to rigorously analyze and answer this important societal question. Two of these researchers—Kristof Dhont of Ghent University, Belgium, and Gordon Hodson of Brock University, in Canada—have been studying the idea and synthesizing the work of others, and they summarize the fruits of this ongoing project in a forthcoming issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The short answer is yes—there is a clear, predictable and causal link between low intelligence and prejudice, including racism.

Let’s not stop there, however. It’s important, when dealing with such a controversial topic, to get down into the evidentiary weeds a bit. One of the problems plaguing the early research was that the results were confounded by other possible causes, like financial status and class and education. That is, it could have been these things, and not intelligence per se, that led to prejudice. Scientists had trouble sorting all this out. Scientists also didn’t have longitudinal data—data gathered on the same subjects over time—so they could not address the important issue of cause and effect. Plus their study samples were not representative of the population. But scientists have over time solved these problems, and the key finding has held up: Empirical evidence has consistently linked low intelligence with prejudice.

Importantly, scientists have measured intelligence in a variety of ways, and the main conclusion always holds up. In one study of white children, for example, some were less able to see that a short wide glass holds the same amount of water as a taller skinnier glass. This ability is known as “conservation” in the jargon of the field, and it’s widely considered an important mental ability. In this study, the kids who lacked this ability also held more negative views of black children. Other researchers conducted an ambitious meta-analysis—a statistical aggregation of findings from many studies—and this also documented a link between cognitive style and ability, on the one hand, and authoritarian attitudes on the other.

Longitudinal studies provide some of the most convincing evidence. One such study looked at general intelligence in 10- and 11-year-old kids, and then re-studied those kids as adults two decades later—and found a clear connection between low intelligence and subsequent racism and sexism. Similarly, higher intelligence in childhood has been shown to predict less racism in adulthood. These analyses strongly suggest that low intelligence actually leads to hateful attitudes later on.

This is just a sampling of the accruing evidence on this point, all of which points to another puzzling question: Why? Why would verbal ability and math skills and other cognitive assets translate, over the years, into such hateful attitudes?

Dhont and Hodson believe they have an answer to this, again one based on rigorous abundant evidence. Their theory is that right-wing ideologies attract people with lower mental abilities because they minimize the complexity of the world. Right-wing ideologies offer well-structured and ordered views of society, views that preserve traditions and norms, so they are especially attractive to those who are threatened by change and want to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. Conversely, smart people are more capable of grasping a world of nuance, fluidity and relativity.

The empirical evidence supports this link, too. Low intelligence and “low effort thinking” are strongly linked to right-wing attitudes, including authoritarianism and conservative politics. And again, there appears to be a demonstrable causal link: Studies have found, for example, that children with poor mental skills grow up to be strongly right-wing adults.

There is a final link in the chain of causality, according to Dhont and Hodson. Considerable evidence shows that conservative ideology predicts all sorts of prejudice—against ethnic and racial minorities, the disadvantaged, any outgroup. Indeed, right wingers are much more likely to see outgroups as a threat to traditional values and social order, resulting in heightened prejudice. Dhont and Hodson tested and confirmed this mediation model: Lower childhood intelligence clearly predicts right-wing ideology and attitude, which in turn predicts prejudice in adulthood.

The scientists elaborate on this idea in the Current Directions article: Intelligence and thinking determine how people assess threats in the world. Those with lower ability—reasoning skills, processing speed, and so forth—prefer simple and predictable answers, because that is what they are capable of processing. Any uncertainty is threatening, and they respond to such threats by trying to preserve what is familiar and safe, the status quo. These conservative reactions are basic and normal—they reduce anxiety—but over time they harden into more stable and pervasive world views, which include stereotypical thinking, avoidance, prejudicial attitudes and over discrimination.

The weight of evidence is hard to ignore, yet according to these scientists, it is conspicuously absent from contemporary theories of prejudice. They believe that it’s time for psychological scientists to stop ignoring the evidence—that in fact the field will benefit from open discussion of these controversial findings. The country might as well, and the events in Ferguson may well trigger that discussion.

Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting on psychological science in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.


Thanks for the interesting article! This passage

“Those with lower ability—-reasoning skills, processing speed, and so forth—-prefer simple and predictable answers, because that is what they are capable of processing. Any uncertainty is threatening, and they respond to such threats by trying to preserve what is familiar and safe, the status quo.”

has me wondering whether there’s a similar correlation between those with certain religious, supernatural, and/or dogmatic beliefs and those with low intelligence. For example, many religions offer simple and predictable answers.

Do you know of any research on this topic?

…any ideology can provide simple and predictable answers, it doesn’t need to be right-wing, authoritarian or conservative one. people can hate capitalists, 1%, jews, GMO, nuclear energy and use any from a plethora of conspiracy theories in order to explain world around them and feel safe. for example, in Czech Republic I suspect people with “lower cognitive abilites” would hold more left-winged, socialist (but maybe also more religious) attitudes…

Quite ironic that you dub yourself intelligent and are prejudiced against the stupid. Lets not get things confused here. It is ignorance, not stupidity that leads to prejudice.

All I have to say is….rubbish

In the modern world, intelligence depends on the socioeconomic status, I think. It’s not concerned with the particular race, but with culture.

Readers of this article should bear in mind the logical fallacy of “affirming the consequent.” That is, even though low mental ability might be more likely to lead to conservative thinking, we should not assume that anyone who thinks conservatively is therefore of lower mental ability, or for that matter dismiss conservative thinking as inherently inferior. Intelligent people using sound reasoning may formulate conservative views that have merit and are worth considering.

Funny that these “intelligence tests” have also been used to prove the inferiority of those being discriminated against…oh wait, I guess that is my “politically correct” observation?

“Right-wing ideologies offer well-structured and ordered views of society, views that preserve traditions and norms, so they are especially attractive to those who are threatened by change and want to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity”

This is contradictory or rather paradoxical when used in the US with US terms. By that I mean that Republicans are seen as conservatives, racists and religious; they’re also seen as being on the right. Some of which is more akin to misnomer then fact.

This also is a huge problem given the lefts stance on social issues, as the left has traditionally been against change, racist and so forth. Meaning that the Klu Klux Klan for example was started in an attempt, by the left, by Democrats, to prevent blacks form voting. Democrats almost always voted against Republicans whom were trying to push social change, by you know, giving people, mean all people and not just land owners the right to vote.

Meaning that there was a push to push white men, blacks and then women into voting. All of which were right wing causes in the US.

What I mean by this is that the Republican party was started and formed by and with blacks in mind. Also there’s always statistics that prove that the Democratic party is more likely to be religious, racist, etc…

The most easy to look at is the black man today in the US. How is he doing under democratic rule? I mean the Democrat party is in charge, run by a half-black man, so are blacks doing better overall?

Anyway, I hate race and prejudice being pushed into political topics. In particular when talking as you are. Authoritative can speak to Hitler and Stalin. It also speaks to Obama and Bush. Your terms are improper.

Well you had me going for a while until it turned into a political hit piece on conservatives, who, by the way, are generally better educated and more intelligent than liberals.

The intentional dumbing-down of school children over the past few decades has prepared a fertile ground for the racism that liberalism needs to take root and flourish.

My theory was bigotry is a form of mental illness, and by definition it a handy cap . And should be treated as such. I would put them in the severely low effort thinkers category…..they would also get all the best parking spots.

Most of the comments only affirm the study!! SMH!

I can understand some of the hostility in this comment section. Because of the wording, it’s easy to read this and think it applies to every conservative out there. But people have to keep in mind that this study isn’t saying ALL conservatives are stupid and/or racist. It’s saying that people with lower intelligence typically lean towards conservative beliefs, STRONG conservative beliefs.

This isn’t referring to people who want less government spending and a free market, it’s referring to the far-right demographic that wants to keep Hispanics out of the country, thinks the black people cause all crime, and thinks gay rights equates the downfall America – extreme social conservatives ideologies.

If the article had specified this, I think it could have avoided some of the angry responses. I knew there would be a slew of negative comments as soon as I saw the mention of conservatism.

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