Intelligence and Prejudice: Are Smart People Really Less Prejudiced?

Some people like to think that prejudice is a thing of the past, but we might as well face facts: prejudice remains a persistent problem in our world. Sure, it might be expressed differently than it was before, but the data clearly show that people still hold predispositions to dislike other groups.

Social psychologists have been studying the nature of prejudice for years, and one approach is to ask the question: what kinds of people show the most prejudice toward other groups? By prejudice, psychologists usually mean a negative evaluation of someone based on a larger group to which he or she belongs. In other words, someone with prejudice toward a group (e.g., African Americans, women, homosexuals) dislikes the group as a whole, which can filter down into disliking individual people just because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Some studies have looked at a link between intelligence (or cognitive ability) and prejudice, and although it may have looked like a clear story, new evidence paints a more accurate picture.

Less Intelligent People Are More Prejudiced (or so we thought)

intelligence and prejudice

Some psychologists have proposed that less intelligent people have more prejudice. The idea is that having an open mind and keeping up with a changing social world requires a certain amount of mental agility. People with lower mental skills just might be unable to handle it.

After all, plenty of research has shown how people apply stereotypes to others more when they’re distracted or can’t think carefully. This would mean that less intelligent people, who can’t or don’t care to think very deeply, use stereotypes to judge people and react with prejudice.

Last year, a group of psychologists published a meta-analysis, which means they combined the results from 23 different studies on more than 27,000 people. Across these studies, there was a reliable pattern whereby lower cognitive ability was associated with more prejudice.[1]  If it means anything to you, the meta-analytic effect size was r = -.19.

So, that’s it! Smart people are less prejudiced. Let’s wrap up and go—

Not so fast. There’s more to the story.

Prejudice Towards Different Groups

If you take a closer look at the studies that show a relationship between intelligence and prejudice, you’ll see that they focused on prejudice toward groups like ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and racial minorities.

Psychologists Mark Brandt and Jarret Crawford suggested that focusing on these groups might be misleading. Maybe people with higher cognitive skills can have just as much prejudice, but maybe they have it about different groups. This would mean that intelligence itself isn’t what’s important—it’s other stuff that’s associated with intelligence that is.

First, it’s worth noting that intelligence is also related to whether someone is more or less socially conservative. Lots of data have shown that people with lower cognitive ability also tend to be more conservative. This means that people with lower mental ability might have more prejudice toward groups like Hispanics and Homosexuals simply because these groups tend to be pretty liberal (and people tend to dislike others who seem different from them). If this is true, it means that people with higher mental ability might have more prejudice toward more conservative groups like Christians or members of the military.

Second, groups like ethnic and sexual minorities might be the subject of prejudice among less intelligent people because people don’t have a choice in whether or not they belong to those groups. As a result, it can be easier to draw clear lines between groups like this, which could be a common tactic among less intelligent people. If this is the case, though, it might mean that more intelligent people have more prejudice toward groups whose members have more of a choice about belonging to the group.

Intelligent People Can Be Just As Prejudiced

intelligence02Brandt and Crawford put these ideas to the test. They used publicly available data from the 2012 American National Election Study, which interviewed almost 6,000 people across the United States. All of the people who responded to that study completed a 10-question vocabulary test, which does a good job of measuring a person’s overall mental ability. The respondents also rated how much they liked or disliked 24 different groups of people, which reflects their degree of prejudice.

The results showed that lower intelligence was related to more prejudice toward groups like Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Muslims, and Homosexuals…just like in the earlier studies.

But the new finding was that more intelligence was also related to more prejudice, but only toward groups like Christian Fundamentalists, Big Business, the Tea Party, and the Military.

Even further, the data confirm that these patterns occur because less intelligent people tend to dislike groups that are more liberal and whose members don’t have as much choice in being part of that group. Similarly, more intelligent people tend to dislike groups that are more conservative and whose members do have more of a choice over being part of the group.

Being Smart About Prejudice

Oh, psychology. Always taking a perfectly simple fact about humanity and complicating it with nuance.

The point of all of this is that it might have been easier to say that “less intelligent people are more prejudiced,” but it’s an overly simple summary. The original research wasn’t necessarily wrong—it was just part of the full picture. The reality is that a genius can be every bit as prejudiced as someone with less of a mental gift. That prejudice just might be targeting a different set of groups.

Finally, I should point out, though, that these effects are pretty small overall. Yes, mental ability is related to prejudice, but it doesn’t mean everyone with a very high or very low IQ has extreme prejudice. It just means that degrees of prejudice tend to be a bit higher or lower depending on level of mental ability.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   If it means anything to you, the meta-analytic effect size was r = -.19.

Leave a Comment