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Brainpower, Beliefs and Racial Bias: Is this smart research?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

Liberals probably did this research. And we’re surprised it hasn’t hit the media in a big way. We have written about research saying conservatives are more driven by fear than are liberals and how liberals and conservatives simply ‘see’ the world differently. So far, though, we haven’t written about which group is smarter.

Researchers from friendly Canada remind us that children with low intelligence are more likely to hold biased/prejudiced attitudes as adults. They also advise us that lower-intelligence adults tend to prefer socially conservative ideas. As curious folks [and we assume, unafraid to upset anyone], they wanted to examine the relationships between intelligence, political ideology and racism.

So they assessed both verbal and nonverbal intelligence and then measured social conservatism and racism. [It should be noted the validity of instruments purporting to measure all three of these constructs (quick measures of intelligence, conservatism, and racism) are, by themselves, of questionable validity according to some reviewers.]

Social conservatism was measured by agreement with a list of statements including “Family life suffers if mum is working full-time” and “Schools should teach children to obey authority”.

Attitudes toward other races were assessed by measuring response to statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races” or “I wouldn’t mind if a family of a different race moved next door”. [This would measure overt racism and not the more covert sort we’ve written about repeatedly on this blog.]

They found, as expected, that lower levels of intelligence were correlated with higher levels of racism. But the link between the two (intellect and prejudice) was largely explained by political ideology. That is, conservatives were both lower in intelligence and higher in racism than were liberals. Conservatives were also less likely to have relationships with or simple exposure to people of other races.

The researchers then conducted a study of American undergraduates and found the same relationship when looking at attitudes toward homosexuals. Conservatives were less intelligent, more prejudiced/biased against homosexuality and less likely to have contact with homosexuals than were liberals.

The researchers suggest that conservative ideologies offer structure and a roadmap to attitudes for the less intellectually gifted. They offer the suggestion that it may be too mentally taxing for some conservatives to consider taking on the personal perspective of someone very different from them. (This is a long-held strategy for increasing empathy and thus lowering bias.) They also say that not all conservatives are prejudiced, stupid or isolated from those ‘different’ than themselves [how liberal of them!]–just as all liberals are not brilliant, bias-free, or surrounded by those ‘different’ than themselves. They describe their findings as “the averages” from large groups of people of both orientations.

It is a very controversial finding indeed and perusal of the comments section in one on-line discussion forum finds liberals and conservatives arguing for and against the findings of this research.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we recommend against assuming political ideation predicts intellectual level or bias. Our recommendation is partly due to it being an offensive presumption, and partly because in small samples (such as a jury venire) the individual differences are bigger than almost any demographic characteristic. Political ideation is not predictive of intellectual level or prejudice–it is simply correlated or related–and we don’t know exactly how. So we would recommend the following:

Look at how liberal/conservative orientation, education (as a stand-in for IQ), and measures of prejudice interact with your specific case facts.  Ask yourself how much abstract reasoning or complex analysis of the facts are required for understanding.  Ask yourself how, if your client is a social minority (ethnic, sexual preference, or other) you can help them to appear more ‘relatable’ to the jury. If any of those variables are related to ultimate decision-making in pretrial research, use that.

Avoid assuming how different people will react to your case based on stereotypes. It is generally a waste of time to try to imagine the impact of stereotypes, but that doesn’t stop a lot of us from believing that (for example) women are good for the plaintiff or minorities are bad for the defense.

The researchers in this study mention that we might do better to intervene at the emotional level rather than the thinking level when dealing with people of lower intelligence. We would say prepare your case to address both thinking and feeling.

Finally, a variable we always pay attention to when examining potential jurors is with regard to who has leadership ability and who will be influential in deliberations. What we see over and over again is that leaders tend to be articulate and persuasive and those who are neither bright nor persuasive tend to be followers. When we have a mix of both on a jury (whether liberal or conservative) we see the brighter and more persuasive jurors leading the deliberations. And that’s what matters most.

Hodson, G., & Busseri, M. (2012). Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact Psychological Science, 23 (2), 187-195 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611421206



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