Are Smarter People More Economically Conservative?

Are Smarter People More Economically Conservative?
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The overwhelming majority of social psychologists are liberal, so that could at least partly explain why the field's scientific literature is overflowing with studies linking conservative political views to lower levels of intelligence.

"That's just what the data say," psychologists might counter, glossing over the publication bias, p-hacking, and slanted studies that are rife within the discipline.

A new meta-analysis published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin might be an inconvenient fact then. Drs. Alexander Jedinger and Axel M. Burger, research scientists at the Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Cologne, Germany, aggregated and analyzed 23 studies which explored if there was an association between cognitive ability and economic ideology. In total, the meta-analysis included over 46,000 participants from the U.S., the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden, and Turkey.

The outcome? Jedinger and Burger found a small (r = .07), statistically significant (p = .008) link between higher cognitive ability and economic conservatism, defined as "opposition toward governmental intervention in markets and the acceptance of economic inequality". To paraphrase, smarter people tended to favor free markets.

Now, r=.07 is quite a small effect size (r goes from -1 for a negative correlation to 1 for a positive correlation), so it's highly unlikely that greater cognitive ability is meaningfully tied to an affinity for free markets. More likely, the authors write, the result is confounded by the fact that smarter people tend to be wealthier, making them "less supportive of governmental regulations of markets, and redistributive social policies because they have more to lose from these measure."

That's a reasonable explanation. Jedinger and Burger should be commended for their warranted skepticism.

One might have hoped that an international team of psychologists would've offered similar learned suspicion six years ago when their meta-analysis linked lower cognitive ability to right-wing ideology. They found a paltry effect size of r = -0.2, yet that didn't stop them from concluding that "cognitive ability is an important factor in the genesis of ideological attitudes and prejudice and thus should become more central in theorizing and model building."

In the end, neither the current meta-analysis nor the one from 2015 really tell us anything useful, but they might be used as fodder for popular psychology books.

Source: Jedinger A, Burger AM. Do Smarter People Have More Conservative Economic Attitudes? Assessing the Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Economic Ideology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. September 2021. doi:10.1177/01461672211046808



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