Political moderates and independents are not as smart on average

By Razib Khan | October 4, 2012 11:54 pm

Long time readers know that it’s trivially easy to extract information from the GSS that political moderates and independents are not as intelligent as partisans and ideologues. New readers are not always familiar. A comment:

#8 Do you have something to back up the idea that independents are less intelligent? If anything, I would’ve expected the opposite- that independents are capable of thinking for themselves instead of following the party line.

First, a quick review of the data. I used two GSS variables, PARTYID and POLVIEWS, and limited the sample to non-Hispanic whites after the year 2000. I removed those of “Other party” as well. Finally, I crossed that against vocab score results, which correlates with intelligence with a value of 0.70. It is rather obvious that middle-of-the-roaders are not as bright:

WORDSUM SCORE
0-2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Strong Dem 15 8 13 9 10 12 14 15 20
Dem 17 24 14 15 15 13 14 15 15
Lean Dem 11 9 8 11 11 11 10 18 14
Independent 26 23 23 21 18 16 14 11 11
Lean Repub 10 8 12 10 8 12 13 10 12
Repub 15 21 18 21 21 20 18 16 13
Strong Repub 6 8 11 13 18 16 16 16 15
Extreme Liberal 5 3 2 2 1 4 3 4 7
Liberal 5 11 6 6 8 12 10 16 20
Lean Liberal 6 10 13 7 10 11 12 17 14
Moderate 44 45 44 43 39 33 30 28 24
Lean Conservative 21 12 13 18 16 18 18 14 16
Conservative 14 16 16 20 22 17 22 19 15
Extreme Conservative 5 4 5 3 4 6 3 2 3

As you can see the proportion in the middle decreases as you go up in intelligence. Why? A straightforward explanation is that independents and moderates are “low information” political actors. And therefore they are likely to be less intelligent in the first place. But there is I think another dynamic going on: the smart know where to go to reinforce their biases. That is, they’re far better at motivated reasoning, and become progressively more polarized and ideological.

My point is that the reality is on many topics very few of us ‘reason for ourselves.’ Rather, we trust certain people who know better. On economics smart liberals trust Paul Krugman, and smart conservatives trust Greg Mankiw. Not only are these individuals gifted with a specialized knowledge of economics in relation to the typical smart person, but they’re much smarter than average. That’s one reason I’m usually not interested in talking politics in detail with people: why not just go to the source that they’re garbling?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: GSS
MORE ABOUT: GSS
  • Alan Peery

    I think the really smart people listen to *both* sides of the debate, and I try to do so. Paul Krugman is now in one of my circles in Google+, and Greg Mankiw will show up in my Google News feed…

    As far as where I’d fit on the liberal/moderate/libertarian spectrum above, it depends on the issue. Where would you put a compassionate fiscally conservative civil libertarian with a strong awareness of military issues and history?

  • AG

    It is more likely that smart people had figured out each political ideology long time ago and took the side with their believe. Simple rhetoric is for brain-washing simple mind.

    If left wing politics has bimodal distribution, what about poltical centrism?

  • Eduardo

    A Heiner Rindermann study from earlier this year (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289611001425) showed just the opposite, namely that the highest IQs are held by political moderates (with a slight edge to the center-right), and that the far left or far right score lower; in other words, the more extreme the political orientation, the lower the IQ. In the UK, for example, the centrist party (Lib Dems) had an average IQ of 108, conservatives (Tories) averaged 103, liberals (Labour) 102, and the right-wing British National Party 98. Similar results have also been found in Germany and the Netherlands, and Rindermann’s latest study was based on Brazil. There too: center-right = IQ 105, center = 103, center-left = 100, far left = 98, far right = 97, and those with no political opinion either way at the bottom (IQ = 94).

  • Yong

    I guess I’m not so bright then, at least when it comes to politics. But ask me about books or music and I have some very extreme opinions. This probably has to do with the fact that politics is not very interesting to me. I’m so turned off by the personality types that inhabit that realm that I’m almost uninterested in politics. Don’t ever populate a country with guys like me if you want a democratic capitalist society. Mine would be an impoverished backwater ruled by a despot with a strong hatred for postmodernism.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #3, lib-dems are no longer centrist. they’ve run to the left of labor before in the past generation.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I guess I’m not so bright then, at least when it comes to politics.

    chill on the sarcasm. this site is indexed high enough in google that stupid people are going to read this and think i’m saying that if you are an independent & moderate you are stupid. the effect is real, but modest.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    showed just the opposite, namely that the highest IQs are held by political moderates (with a slight edge to the center-right), and that the far left or far right score lower; in other words, the more extreme the political orientation, the lower the IQ.

    1) the rinderman study is in a brazilian sample, is that right? (looking at the abstract)

    2) the sample size is actually factors lower than the one i used for the GSS

    3) the measure of general intelligence is more accurate though

    so let me clarify so you don’t confuse people: in america the more intelligent/educated/wealthy tend to be more ideological and politically polarized. that’s robust.

  • Eduardo

    > the rinderman study is in a brazilian sample, is that right? (looking at the abstract)
    Part of the study is based on new results from Brazil (which Rindermann chose to see whether the results from several European countries would also apply to a developing country)
    An ungated PDF is at https://lesacreduprintemps19.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/political-orientations-intelligence-and-education.pdf

    > 2) the sample size is actually factors lower than the one i used for the GSS
    Yes, was less than 600 subjects.

    > 3) the measure of general intelligence is more accurate though
    Yes they used Raven’s, not Wordsum.

    > in america the more intelligent/educated/wealthy tend to be more
    > ideological and politically polarized. that’s robust.
    That may well be true. America is exceptional in many ways.

    About the same time that the Rindermann came out, there was another study indicating that conservatives are low-IQ racists, because “socially conservative ideologies tend to offer structure and order”; the left-leaning and normally IQ-averse press loved it (e.g. at http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2012/01/26/report-prejudice-linked-to-low-iq.html), yet this Rindermann paper wasn’t reported anywhere. Ditto for obits on Rushton; only a few local Canadian news sites have written about his death, and even his own university barely mentions it on their home-page. Legit IQ research with controversial results is shunned now even more than it was 20 years ago (when even the NYT would review Rushton’s books), but every week there’s a new feel-good book about how IQ is outdated and useless (Nesbitt, Paul Tough, Carol Dweck, etc.)

  • Ed

    #3
    ” In the UK, for example, the centrist party (Lib Dems) had an average IQ of 108, conservatives (Tories) averaged 103, liberals (Labour) 102, and the right-wing British National Party 98. Similar results have also been found in Germany and the Netherlands, and Rindermann’s latest study was based on Brazil. There too: center-right = IQ 105, center = 103, center-left = 100, far left = 98, far right = 97, and those with no political opinion either way at the bottom (IQ = 94).”

    Where is this from?

  • Yong

    I didn’t mean to come off as sarcastic. I really do think I’m lazy about politics, because I don’t care. that’s not a good thing. and may be a part of me that needs development.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #10, i care less and less. life is short. i think your apathy is a good thing. devote your mind to productive endeavors.

    #8, no shit. why are you telling me this?

  • Ed

    Nevermind

  • Chris_T_T

    1 – Highly visible and vocal people are probably the worst place one could go to get good information and analysis. Keep in mind the reason they’re famous is because they promote one particular political view and the cost of deviating from it would be high.

  • http://mutecypher.wordpress.com mutecypher

    My first thought was that if the Flynn Effect continues, we can look forward to an even more polarized electorate as time goes on. But in a quick reading of articles on political polarization it appears that we (Americans) are strongly polarized on a moderate set of issues (abortion, war on Islamic terrorism, gay rights, immigration) and reaching consensus on many others. Since those things tend to reflect deep values that are not too far from basic assumptions – and not the result of multi-step reasoning – I’m not sanguine that 6 points of IQ a decade will help us reach a consensus there. We’ll just get better at the intellectual equivalent of trench-digging.

    So 50 years from now courteous party guests will avoid the same topics they’ve always avoided.

  • Lord

    I never know how to answer these questions. Living in a Republican district in a closed primary state, I maximize the value of my vote by registering and voting Republican in primaries and Democratic in finals. I end up identifying as a moderate since everyone is moderate by Republican standards or as independent out of distaste though pragmatic liberal would be closer to the truth unframed. I certainly follow Krugman (and Stewart and Colbert). It wouldn’t surprise me undecided voters are less intelligent, after all, even if both are bad one is usually worse and it doesn’t take that much to determine, but I suppose these are often the ones that don’t vote.

  • ackbark

    7. Razib, isn’t this simply that in Europe what is centrist or moderate is what is Extreme Liberal in the US?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #16, how would that change the distribution? anyway, as i said to eduardo above, the lib dems were to the left of labor for the whole new labor period from what i recall.

  • John Emerson

    The moderation of less-intelligent people can be seen as a sort of reasonable modesty. Likewise, their caution can seen as a sort of flywheel or damper slowing change, and thus as a conservtive force (for better or worse). Change will happen only when the rationale has trickled all the way down. (This of course is misleading, since committed minorities have an enormous power to bring about change, in certain circumstances. But in more gradualist circumstances, the less-intelligent are the ones who need to be convinced.)

  • dave chamberlin

    “the smart know where to go to reiforce their biases”

    Completely true in politics which is exactly why so much of it is exasperating bullshit. Some of us are fascinated by the world as it is and don’t want to reinforce our biases. We have political opinions but the first and foremost one is please don’t tell me yours.

  • T

    ackbark, That is a common misconception. The US is to the left of countries such as Switzerland and Sweden, both economically and socially. In European terms the US might be considered center-right.

  • John Emerson

    T should explain his comment, which makes sense only according to a very rare interpretation of left and right.

  • Ed

    Sweden seems like it has both left and right traits economically:

    “Sweden has achieved a high standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. Sweden has the second highest total tax revenue behind Denmark, as a share of the country’s income. As of 2011, total tax revenue was 44.4% of GDP, down from 48.3% in 2006.”

    “Sweden’s industry is overwhelmingly in private control; unlike some other industrialized Western countries, such as Austria, Italy or Finland, state owned enterprises were always of minor importance.”

    “Around seventy percent of the Swedish labour force is unionised.[36] For most unions there is a counterpart employer’s organization for businesses. The unions and employer organisations are independent of both the government and political parties, although the largest confederation of unions, the National Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions or LO (organising blue-collar workers), maintains close links to the largest political party, the Social Democrats.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Sweden

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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 http://www.razib.com

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