Moderates are dull, liberals are smarter, conservatives are middling

By Razib Khan | February 10, 2011 12:52 am

Long time reader Ian comments:

A comparison with “the American public” isn’t really appropriate – to even be in the pool where you’re thinking about an academic career, you need to have a college degree. And that population if memory serves, is far more liberal than the population at large. More realistic would be a comparison with the population of people who have graduate degree….

Roughly about ~20% of Americans self-identify as “liberal,” and ~40% as conservative. The General Social Survey has a variable POLVIEWS, which asks individuals to assign themselves to a position on a political spectrum, from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative,” like so:

1 = Extremely liberal
2 = Liberal
3 = Slightly liberal
4 = Moderate
5 = Slightly conservative
6 = Conservative
7 = Extremely conservative

So in other words, the higher the integer, the more conservative the individual. The GSS has a variable, EDUCATION, which records the highest level attained. It falls into three classes, high school, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees (I assume those who did not complete high school are omitted because they didn’t attain an education?). Additionally, it has a 10 word vocabulary test, WORDSUM, which has a 0.71 correlation with general intelligence. I combined those on the interval 0-4 (they got 0 to 4 answers correct on the test), and labeled them “dull.” 5-8 I labelled “average. And finally, 9 and 10 I labeled smart (about 20% are dull, 65% average, and 15% smart, in the total data set). Constraining the sample to the year 2000 and later, I produced the following charts:


~9% of the sample have graduate degrees, while 25% have bachelor’s degrees. So you aren’t really seeing middling educational attainments. There is obviously some tendency toward an increase in the proportion of self-identified liberals at graduate levels of education, but the biggest notable trend is the collapse of self-described “moderates” among the more intelligent or educated cohorts. I sometimes wonder if the vacuousness of political moderation is one reason why the term “centrist” is popular among those who are neither liberal nor conservative, but have a higher socioeconomic status.

Long time readers know this fact about the dullness of moderates, but I thought I’d reiterate. It’s interesting, if consistent. For what it’s worth, I think my own political views are becoming more moderate. But don’t confuse correlation with causation!


Comments (19)

  1. Richard D. Morey

    Your plots do not support your claims, at least without additional analysis. “Moderates are dull” is a statement that P(S|M) (the probability of being smart given that you are moderate) is low. But what you’ve got is plots showing P(M|S) – that is, the probability that you are moderate GIVEN that you are smart/average/dull. You’re conditioning on the wrong thing.

    If you want to find the inverse conditional, you need to use Bayes’ theorem; or, just do the other data analysis.

  2. Zerodash

    Honestly, I’m not sure what this study is trying to prove when the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” are both so nebulous. For instance, there is the increasingly common idea of separating the social and the economic aspect of each “side” into distinct groups, which gives rise to people who, for instance, describe themselves as “socially liberal but economically conservative” and so forth.

    I would rather see (if this study even has value in the first place- politics is still a nebulous concept) the distinction made between more specific political leanings. Where do religious young-earth conservatives fare compared to hippie holistic liberals on the intelligence scale? Likewise, where do conservative businessmen (business success requires smarts) fare against liberal college professors (again, requires smarts)? These groups all fall within the crude definition of conservative and liberal, and yet likely represent different levels of intelligence.

  3. John Emerson

    I think of moderates as either people who are more or less satisfied with the status quo and wary of change (which is actually one definition of “conservative”) or else people lacking in aggression and self-confidence who don’t want to make a fuss and don’t really trust their own judgment.

    One sort of conservative is someone who firmly believes the basic truths they were taught when they were young, does not feel the need for new truths, and is angry when they are challenged.

    The less educated would tend to cluster in these groups, I would think, which would be 4 to 6.

    To end up at 1 or 7 you’d need some mix of self-confidence, aggression, and dissatisfaction. Right now they look like they’re no more than 10% combined, which suggests that our system is still fairly stable. As I understand, in 1932 about 45% of Germans were at one extreme or the other (Communist or Nazi).

  4. bob sykes

    I agree with Richard. The charts only prove that HS and BS holders tend to be more moderate that graduate degree holders, and that the latter are spread all over hell and back. As might be predicted from simply watching TV news, you show that that graduate degree holders are more likely to be ideologues and extremists. If anything, you chart are a good argument for denying graduate degree holders the right to vote, hold public office (elective or appointive) and serve on juries.

  5. John Emerson

    Bob, you’re assuming that the center is right. That’s a common assumption, but there’s no truth in it. The center is just a statistical construction based on present opinion. (For example, the center is doubtful about evolution). One big chunk of the center has few ideas and very little information; it’s very close to “no opinion”.

  6. Joe

    People who self-identify as conservative often turn out to be more liberal when asked about specific issues.

  7. As might be predicted from simply watching TV news, you show that that graduate degree holders are more likely to be ideologues and extremists. If anything, you chart are a good argument for denying graduate degree holders the right to vote, hold public office (elective or appointive) and serve on juries.

    there you go again, veering between coherency and total question begging crap.

    #1, yeah, good point. since i think most people are dull, i just stated in that way.

    #2, i provided links so you can do the analysis yourself with those filters. i don’t you’ll do it though, you’re probably a lazy fuck 🙂

  8. Jason Malloy

    The latest OkTrends post finds that liberals in their data set prefer complexity significantly more than conservatives. It also finds that grammar (another fairly obvious proxy for IQ) is the strongest correlate of religiosity.

    Strong atheists have the highest writing ability while centrist protestants have the worst.

  9. miko

    I often have a hard time putting myself on a liberal-conservative scale. In the U.S., these are mostly team categories. As noted above, if you press people on particular issues, their team affinities often fall apart (a majority was against the health care bill, but for nearly everything it contained when asked as line items). Then there is the fact that I am certainly liberal by US standards, but not particularly so–particularly economically–by developed nation standards. Socially, I’m liberal on many things, but there are many issues where I’m not.

    So then I sit with this stupid fucking linear scale, and pick a number. As with all scales like this, I think a large component of what’s being measured is how different groups of people approach scales.

    Zerodash, you should watch less TV news until you achieve some emotional equilibrium. Which was the coherent part, Razib?

  10. Enema Cowboy

    I also dislike the liberal-conservative continuum; I see it to be a false dichotomy. If it is imperative to use a one-dimensional measurement, it should have anarchy on one end and totalitarianism on the other (or freedom/slavery).

  11. Zerodash


    Wow, an ad hominem attack. Classy. Not sure where you even get TV news from my post, either.

    Please demonstrate how my lack of “emotional equilibrium” has anything to do with my statement that the very terms “liberal” and “conservative” are vague and imperfect descriptors of people? Is that not similar to what you just said?

  12. miko, that was bob. and yes, yes, i know the continuum sucks. we get it. i don’t fit well either. but it’s the largest explanatory dimension. sorry, just how it is.

  13. miko

    Sorry Zerodash… I completely screwed up, I was attacking bob sykes ad hominemly.

  14. jb

    People who go to college tend to be smarter than average. If college actually influences people’s thinking, and pushes them in a more liberal direction, then wouldn’t we expect that, as a result, liberals would end up smarter on average than conservatives? (Imagine if all the smartest people went to college, and college converted 100% of them to liberalism!)

    I’m thinking in particular of my own college experience. I’m somewhat conservative now, but I was considerably more liberal in college. I never felt any obvious pressure, it’s just that liberalism was in the air, something that was assumed. I gave up my religion in college. It didn’t take much of a push really, but I can think of a particular professor who gave me support. I might have had a far more difficult time of it at a conservative Catholic institution! Do we have any good information about the political leanings of college freshmen verses seniors?

  15. From what I recall EDUC is a lot more fine-grained and can get people with varying amounts of even grade-school education.

    John Emerson, I’m thinking Philip Converse on moderates. The general public tends not to understand what those ideological terms even mean, and the dim may not have a strong enough grasp to identify with any ideology.

  16. Idlewilde

    What about people who think political involvment is waste of time better spent on one’s own friends, family, and interests? Or are those called independants? That would be interesting.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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