New research finds people with high and low cognitive ability are both biased — just toward different groups.
By Tom Jacobs
(Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
It’s easy to feel superior to bigots. Research has confirmed the widespread belief that racists and homophobes aren’t especially bright.
But here’s the thing: Smart people are biased too. They also make negative assumptions about entire groups of people. They simply choose different targets for their generalized dislike.
That’s the conclusion of a study just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which suggests that, when it comes to tolerance for perceived outsiders, none of us should get too smug.
“People with both relatively higher and lower levels of cognitive ability show approximately equal levels of intergroup bias,” write psychologists Mark Brandt of Tilburg University and Jarret Crawford of the College of New Jersey, “but toward different sets of groups.”
The researchers analyzed data on 5,914 American adults collected in 2012 as part of the American National Election Studies project. “The survey consists of U.S.-eligible voters using a combination of face-to-face interviews and web-based questionnaires,” they note.
Participants were given the names of 24 groups of people and asked to rate them on a “feeling thermometer,” from zero (“unfavorable and very cold”) to 100 (“very warm and favorable”). The groups included ethnicities (Hispanics and Asian Americans), religions (Catholics and Mormons), and social classes (working-class people, rich people), as well as “big business,” “the tea party,” and “gay men and lesbians.”
Smart people are biased too. They also make negative assumptions about entire groups of people.
Feeling thermometer scores “have correlated well with other measures of prejudice,” the researchers write.
Cognitive ability was measured by participants’ performance in a 10-item vocabulary test, in which they were given five words and asked which came closest to the meaning of a sixth (the “target word”). This test “has been associated with general intelligence,” the researchers write.
The results confirmed those of previous studies, in that “people with lower levels of cognitive ability express more prejudice towards ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians.”
However, the researchers also found that “people with higher levels of cognitive ability express more prejudice toward Christian fundamentalists, big business, Christians, the Tea Party, and the military.”
Overall, “lower levels of cognitive ability are associated with prejudice towards groups perceived as liberal/unconventional, and as having less choice over their group membership,” the researchers write. (You have no say in your ethnicity.) “At the same time, the data also suggest that higher levels of cognitive ability are associated with prejudice towards groups perceived as conservative/conventional, and as having more choice over their group membership.” (No one forces you to become a business executive.)
Brandt and Crawford argue that some cognitive processes utilized by less-intelligent people do lead to prejudice, including an inability or unwillingness to see things from another’s perspective; elevated sensitivity to threat; and the need for certainty.
But they note that brighter people can come up with “more self-convincing justifications for prejudice.” In other words, we can use our superior minds to convince ourselves that our emotion-based assumptions actually have merit.
Of course, there are different ways to measure both prejudice and cognitive ability, and different methods may produce different results. One can argue that warm or cool feelings toward a particular group aren’t identical to prejudice against its members.
But the results are a reminder that we all make certain assumptions about people based upon how we categorize them. The issue is which of their group affiliations catches our attention, and activates our prejudices.