What is the intellect for?

There’s a lot to say about the Hodson et al study on the stupidity of us social conservatives.  I’ve only started the Psychological Science article, so I’ll hold off on discussing its methodology and results until I understand them better.  However, there’s something that jumped out at me in LiveScience popular article summarizing the study.  It’s something that I hear liberals say a lot, so I’d like to start already with a discussion of that.

The research finds that children with low intelligence are more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes as adults. These findings point to a vicious cycle, according to lead researcher Gordon Hodson, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario. Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, the study found. Those ideologies, in turn, stress hierarchy and resistance to change, attitudes that can contribute to prejudice, Hodson wrote in an email to LiveScience…

Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world.

“Socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order,” Hodson said, explaining why these beliefs might draw those with low intelligence. “Unfortunately, many of these features can also contribute to prejudice.”

The researchers controlled for factors such as education and socioeconomic status, making their case stronger, Nosek said. But there are other possible explanations that fit the data. For example, Nosek said, a study of left-wing liberals with stereotypically naïve views like “every kid is a genius in his or her own way,” might find that people who hold these attitudes are also less bright. In other words, it might not be a particular ideology that is linked to stupidity, but extremist views in general.

“My speculation is that it’s not as simple as their model presents it,” Nosek said. “I think that lower cognitive capacity can lead to multiple simple ways to represent the world, and one of those can be embodied in a right-wing ideology where ‘People I don’t know are threats’ and ‘The world is a dangerous place‘. … Another simple way would be to just assume everybody is wonderful.”

Prejudice is of particular interest because understanding the roots of racism and bias could help eliminate them, Hodson said. For example, he said, many anti-prejudice programs encourage participants to see things from another group’s point of view. That mental exercise may be too taxing for people of low IQ.

“There may be cognitive limits in the ability to take the perspective of others, particularly foreigners,” Hodson said. “Much of the present research literature suggests that our prejudices are primarily emotional in origin rather than cognitive. These two pieces of information suggest that it might be particularly fruitful for researchers to consider strategies to change feelings toward outgroups,” rather than thoughts.

So, dumb people need “structure and order”–they tend to “simplify”–whereas smart people are comfortable with “complexity”.   One does wonder what the point is in being smart.  After all, apprehending structure and order is the entire function of the mind.  It seems odd that people who are really good at this have a tendency to abstain from doing it.  “Simplifying” is the key analytic activity.  Understanding is always an act of simplification, of identifying essential facts and discarding the rest.  When Galileo discovered the principle of equivalence–that everything falls in the same way–it was a drastically simplifying claim, and–because the simplification proved to be correct (at least in all experiments to date)–a major scientific breakthrough.

There is a species of Leftist academic, usually found in the humanities, who makes a fetish instead of “problematizing” things.  He feels a need to always attack general laws, to focus solely on alleged exceptions.  Having smashed–in his imagination, at any rate–every general law, be it absolute, essential, or probabilistic, his mind is freed to embrace complexity.  In fact, his mind has been made completely empty.  He has nothing left to say about the world except for isolated and meaningless individual facts.

This is the “higher stupidity”.  In times past, an intelligent man was one who could recognize patterns too subtle for the average man to notice.  Today, an intelligent man is one who can construe not to notice what everyone else finds to be obvious.  By single-minded focus on unusual cases and caricaturing the traditional view so that he can easily refute it, today’s stupid geniuses think it pure irrationality to say that the purpose of sex is reproduction, that there are socially relevant gender differences, or that different races might have slightly different average properties.

(Of course, those experimenters who look for violations of the principle of equivalence might in some sense be said to be trying to “problematize” our theory of gravity, but that’s not really true.  They just want to make sure we’ve got the right simplification.  If deviations ever were found, it would be the job of physicists to find a new explanation, i.e. simplification, to fit the expanded set of facts.  Again, fewer relevant variables would be considered a virtue.)

Hodson, being a scientist, is not–at least by habit–a practitioner of the higher stupidity.  He proves that just by publishing this observed correlation.  He doesn’t object to conservatism providing order per se.  It’s not that conservatism simplifies (provides general statements about the world, divides facts into essential and accidental), but that it oversimplifies.  The article makes clear at the end that he regards liberal utilitarianism as a more adequate structure, and he believes the reason social conservatives don’t practice it is because we’re too dumb to do so.  Now, if he meant that his social conservative specimens can’t understand the liberal, tolerant positions, that would be a falsifiable statement that if investigated I think would quickly turn out to be false.  Ask an average “racist” or “homophobe” to explain the liberal point of view they reject, and I think you would find that they could articulate its key points.  “It’s okay as long as everyone consents” is not a difficult idea to grasp.  However, this isn’t what Hodson means.  He means that the practice of liberal utilitarianism, of viewing things from other peoples’ perspectives, is too mentally taxing for us.  This claim is harder to test, but it also seems odd to me.  I can’t imagine that anyone finds it hard to understand that homosexuals would feel happier and more secure if their lifestyle had universal approval, or that blacks would like it better if only they had a positive racial identity.

This brings us to Nosek’s objection.  Liberal tolerance/anti-discrimination is itself a very simple viewpoint.  It takes essentially no mental effort to say that anything that doesn’t result in harm is okay.  In fact, if we accept Jonathan Haidt’s research (see my previous post), then it would seem that conservatives bring more different moral perspectives to bear on problems than liberals.  The liberal sees different perspectives in a sense, but only in that he takes his simple harm/fairness concerns and evaluates them for many different subjects.  In other words, he takes the sort of practical reasoning the most simple-minded person could do, but then does it multiple times from the vantage point of each affected person.  The conservative engages a multitude of perspectives, perhaps not numerically as many as the liberal, but the different perspectives (harm/fairness/purity/loyalty/authority) are qualitatively different from each other.  Thus, one could argue that the social conservative and the racist are the truly broad-minded ones.

The above is only to criticize the explanation that’s being thrown out, not the observed correlations themselves.  Those may have some real substance.  (I expect they do, but I still have to read the paper.)  What, though, is the real explanation?

15 Responses

  1. The above is only to criticize the explanation that’s being thrown out, not the observed correlations themselves. Those may have some real substance. (I expect they do, but I still have to read the paper.) What, though, is the real explanation?

    A quick guess: smart people know how to get ahead by fitting in with the prevailing culture in an advantageous manner. I doubt this covers all of it, but it probably accounts for some of the correlation.

  2. If you have the article handy, can you forward it to me through e-mail? I do psych research professionally, so it’s of interest to me.

  3. I’ve just emailed it.

  4. A person of low intelligence is actually “smart” to rely on prejudice, since prejudice is probably closer to the truth than the random judgments of a person of low intelligence. If a young woman lacks the acumen to discriminate between gentlemen and cads, she is smart to act on the prejudice that all men have dishonorable intentions. For a person of low intelligence, life viewed through crude prejudices is already plenty complex. Take the prejudices away and he is bewildered.

    A person of low intelligence is also “smart” to resist feelings of sympathy, to view all strangers with deep suspicion. This is true for the simple reason that stupid people get ripped off all the time, and trusting stupid people get ripped off even more often than that. Show me a young woman with an IQ of 85 who only sees the good in other people, and I’ll show you a single mom with four baby daddies. Trust is a luxury for people have the acumen to verify.

    I don’t think that conservatism is stupid, but I’m absolutely certain that it’s not stupid for stupid people. Complexity, nuance, an openness to life: all of this is the spice of life for folks living north of IQ120. Down in the double digits, however, they are life-destroying. If low intelligence people are conservative, it’s because they are not so stupid as think they can live life as a liberal.

  5. Bonald,

    Thanks for the post. Might I ask for a copy of the article, as well?

    I’m also a bit surprised at the association of “prejudice” and “conservatism”: since when do conservatives hold a monopoly on prejudices? I grew up attending a very liberal school, and some the unreasoned malice exhibited by third-graders in such an environment towards conservatives can be quite revealing.

  6. Incidentally, “anti-prejudice programs” receive my Most-Eerily-Oceanic-Sounding-Idea-of-the-Day award.

  7. I agree. Great comment.

  8. Hello Domini,

    I’ll send it to you tomorrow, when I’m back on my office computer.

  9. Of course. Post-Modernist philosophy is a concerted attack on “totalizing,” “universalizing,” “logocentric” narratives.

    Postmodernism proposes instead to privilege “aporia” [Ancient Greek: ἀπορία: impasse; lack of resources; puzzlement; doubt; confusion] – difference, discontinuity, disparity, contradiction, discord, indeterminacy, ambiguity, irony, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, chaos.

    As a critical technique, it has its value; as itself a “totalizing” principle, it denies the very possibility of knowledge

  10. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” –Albert Einstein

    “It is simplicity that makes the uneducated more effective than the educated when addressing popular audiences.” –Aristotle

    Brilliant men appreciate the goodness of simplicity.

  11. Exactly. Brilliant men seldom preface their remarks with the caveat “it’s complex.” They more often preface their remarks with the promise “it’s really rather simple.” And when they finish speaking, we see that they’re right.

  12. “In times past, an intelligent man was one who could recognize patterns too subtle for the average man to notice. Today, an intelligent man is one who can construe not to notice what everyone else finds to be obvious.”

    Well done. This could be Don Colacho.

  13. The research finds that children with low intelligence are more likely to hold prejudiced attitudes as adults.

    Smart adults are adept at concealing their prejudiced attitudes.

    Prejudice is of particular interest because understanding the roots of racism and bias could help eliminate them,

    Except prejudice is hardwired into the brain. We’re not blank slates, sorry.

    “I think that lower cognitive capacity can lead to multiple simple ways to represent the world, and one of those can be embodied in a right-wing ideology where ‘People I don’t know are threats’ and ‘The world is a dangerous place‘. … Another simple way would be to just assume everybody is wonderful.”

    View From the Right has a long-running series of stories about white liberals who get killed because they assume everybody (including black thugs) is wonderful. So there are lots of simple-minded (“lower cognitive capacity”) liberals after all.

  14. If this study is right, I guess it just means that more people are stupid in the conservative way than in the liberal way.

  15. […] “This is the “higher stupidity”.  In times past, an intelligent man was one who could recognize patterns too subtle for the average man to notice.  Today, an intelligent man is one who can construe not to notice what everyone else finds to be obvious.” – https://bonald.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/what-is-the-intellect-for/ […]

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