Is Racism Just a Form of Stupidity?

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.


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…

Mark, I believe your comment wouldn’t have sounded as “stupid” if you opened a dictionary and read the definition of racist!

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.

Dear Mark, i fully support your point of view.

Racism is rather related to ignorance than to intelligence.
Some things are simple and there is no need for science to explain that.

Someone who is thinking his race is superior to some any is not stupid or an idiot, this person is simply ignorant.

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.

Well I don’t know where you get these facts from as you sound like you gathered data on this to be able to speak in absolutes, that right wing conservatives are more educated than left wing individuals. However I’m an impiricist, and in my experience, every right wing I have met has not finished school, or has no logic when you converse with them. They are unable to keep a steady flow in conversation and start getting emotional or basing their “facts” on things they heard or bringing off-topic examples to the conversation.

And let’s not confuse the new generation of “left” or “right”, for that matter, who claim to identify as such and when you ask them the definition of both they give you the current political pop-culture interpretation of the words, rather than the actual given meaning they have from when the ideologies were created.

If you read this article and the first half made sense to you and you believed in the studies of these two people who dedicated their lives to the degrees they currently hold and then suddenly changed your mind and did not believe what you read because you identified yourself as one of the low IQ subjects, then maybe you are. You interpreted the article as true based on facts and experimentation until it got personal for you. An intelligent person that reads something that describes them in a negative light due to a study made by not one, but two people with the degrees to back it up, would at least consider the possibility of it being true. That is my opinion anyways.

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!

WOW, you noticed that also….The comments do confirm the article.

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.

On both social media and in real life, whenever I have responded to a persons racist remarks with a valid counter-argument, I have been called a leftie and faced with a torrent of abuse from people who don’t even know me. This article, probably goes a long way towards explaining that reaction.

Did they control in this study for educational attainment? It seems that people who are more intelligent may become more educated and have have different views on that basis. The far better better predictor of ideology in the US is urban versus rural. A look at the precincts that vote democrat versus republican shows cities in blue and everything else in red. The only place this breaks down is in New Mexico.

No person should be allowed to comment a Scientific Report published in a Psychological Science Journal, unless declaring how much scores his own IQ (Intelligence Quotient).

Maybe the smarties are using their brains to hide their racism.

My Dad had an IQ of 189. He was an anti-Semite. Is that close enough to being a “racist”? And do you think the Nazis were stupid? I’d say they were blatant tribalists. Same too for the KKK.

Some of you are missing the point. The studies illustrate that stupid people tend to be racist and/or conservative; not that conservatives or racists tend to be stupid. While they may seem alike, those two assertions are very different.

You really don’t need all these studies to know that this is 100% true, but it’s nice to have the scientific back-up…

I wonder if intelligence decreases in the population, in both Dems and Reps, the father away from moderate they get.

I find it interesting how you can tell the left or right leanings of the people commenting here just by how they respond. Frankly, I’ve been noticing these tendencies for years, I’ve tried debating intelligently with conservatives on countless occasions, the only responses I get are “you’re stupid”, “get lost butt-wipe”, “you’re just a libtard, what do you know”, but never have they offered to support their statements with real debate. Take the comment by Brian above, for example, a claim that conservatives are generally more educated and more intelligent than liberals, yet there has never been a study that shows that, although numerous studies have shown just what this one does. He offered no evidence, of course, but because he is conservative, we are expected to take this claim as fact, that’s the attitude of most conservatives, “I don’t have to verify it, I said it so it’s true, so there!”
As Kelly Fox said above,,, the comments affirm the study’s conclusions.

To start: From an European, multiple party political system, viewpoint, The USA doesn’t have a right wing and a left wing, just right, far right and extreme right.
But what I really wanted to comment ont htis very interesting theme, is which groups where tested on intelligence and racist-rating: just American whites, or other ethnic groups as well? Is racisme linked to sexisme, homofobia and hypernationalism?
Just musing away here.
BTW my IQ is around 140 and I am in USA terms completely left-to-the-left winged: socialist, pacifist

I do not know enough to really speak on the matter and am certainly not clever enough!During apartheid in South Africa (I do not know the actual date)The cabinet was the most highly academically qualified in the world!Just a thought!

Someday racism will be recognized for what it is.
Racism is a form of mental illness which can be contagious if not treated in communities.

Describing your views/self as left or right must be a large clue as to the level of thought you put into any given scenario. Mopping up every situation with a ‘well, this is what I am!’ Is good clue as to your level of processing ability. I’m sure there are idiots and geniuses in all walks of life but labelling oneself is just plain stupid and lazy. (Unless of course you’re in my own deeply conceited position of being labelled ‘no label!’)

” In this study, the kids who lacked this ability also held more negative views of black children. ”

So, they let a bunch of white kids react to black ones, but not vice versa?

What sort of “study” is this exactly. It’s not informed by an agenda of ‘social-justice’ by any chance? This has bullshit written all over it.

But here go the liberals: “Eh, bros, we’re smarter den de conservatives.” “Yeah, bro, tell me somfn I dunno, lol.”

Sounds spot on to me!

Conservatives seem to be intelligent on a practical level, while Liberals seem to be able to process social situations a bit better.


Conservatives are smart enough to protect 2nd Amendment, but dumb enough to try to ban homosexuality and abortion.

Honestly, anyone who can do think on both levels is probably quite intelligent. I think that the groups that people should pay more attention to are Authoritarian and Libertarian instead of Liberal vs. Conservative.

The comments here from angry little right-wing nutjobs reeks of sour grapes, and further supports exactly what the science has so comprehensively demonstrated. The increasingly racist, thinking-impaired public delights in picking on whoever the latest trendy target is for persecution and abuse. Nowadays it’s Muslims. But the stupid public forgets (or probably never even had the capacity to consider…) that African slaves and their descendants, Chinese and Indian indentured labourers, Japanese migrants, suspected communists, and Jews were all made to suffer widespread, government-approved persecution, sickening abuse, sociopathic torture, and abjectly violent killings throughout their respective eras of vile systemic racism too. Now Muslims — and suspected Muslims — as well as suspected Muslim sympathisers are all the targeted victims of the exact same stupid racism and xenophobia. Racists are so REMARKABLY STUPID for still FAILING TO LEARN from their repeated idiotic mistakes throughout the blood-soaked history they have made via their resistance to cope with diversity. And it continues to this day because those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat it.

The evidence about right wing people tending be concerned with maintaining the status quo and perhaps being racist sounds plausible. But what was happening in Ferguson is much more complex I think. I think Ferguson was sparked by police who were both racist and on power trips. As the riots expanded, other groups came in and it became even more complex.

So is everyone agreeing there are congenital stupid and inteligent people, and on what scale is this conclusion based. Simple things like stresses in a childs life are these taken into account? shouldn’t any scale make it clear some kids live nightmare existances and there instincts may be more survival that taking in the mechanisms of the universe. How do social skills fit on the pigion holing tables, may socially incapable intelligent types who would be crushed at street level. Conformity to the brutal a common conclusion, because violence rules!There’s a whole lot more going on that is not being addressed and is this not an exercise in the middle class looking down and reinforcing their superiority stance!

I think everyone is prejudiced, everyone is racist to some degree, intelligent or not. We have the travel journals of Einstein as exhibit A.

Prejudice is a function of experience, not just intelligence. It is a natural, primate instinct to always be aware of “us” and “them”.

But we live in a cultural melting pot and an increasingly global world where the distinctions are breaking down. I think that’s where the angst arises.

The discussion about racism, prejudice is also very hyperbolic at the moment, and I am quite certain there are many different political agendas being pursued.

So, am I prejudiced? Yes. I’m biased against stupid people, ignorant people, people who don’t share my values, people who want to be treated as a protected class, people who want to take my hard-earned stuff, people who want to tell me how to think or what words I can say and what words I cannot.

Ancient democracy was created for strong minority of winers, who believed they were surrounded by the barbarians.The democracy development consisted of widening the circle, but some kind of a racism was the feature of the Western democracies through the European history.In this case the color-blind society is the only possible form of the including of non Western people to the democratic societies. Alternative multicultural societies will add themselves to the third world problems.

Very interesting reading! However, since this article is fairly long in the tooth now, it would be nice to hear if there have been any new findings. Also, links to sources and further reading would be nice. I am always a little leary when someone cites “studies” without supplying links to information about them. Just a thought! 😉

I have certainly always suspected that stupidity went along with racism, however I am extremely puzzled by how the most intelligent person in the United States (Christopher Langan) is also a racist with right wing ideologies. I personally know of two Ivy League graduates, who dedicate themselves to Fox News and the dogma comes with it. How is this possible?

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