It is widely supposed that intelligent, university-educated people lean left. But that is only half-right, and consequentially, half-wrong.

The stereotypical intelligent, wealthy graduate is a leftie, preaching socialism, open immigration, minority rights, eco-apocalypse, tolerance for queers, and secular morality. So goes the common wisdom, at least.

Perhaps spending years in the ivory towers of academia, being indoctrinated by hard-left professors and strident campus activist organisations, has the effect one would expect. And perhaps the comfort of a higher post-graduation income insulates these hoity-toity left-wing elites from the real world.

And perhaps this entire analysis is dead wrong.

It is far from trivial to conduct research about the links between cognitive ability and political ideology. Adding an adequate test of intelligence to a survey is difficult and expensive, and using educational attainment as a proxy for intelligence merely conflates the two.

Still, some eye-opening results have been published in the academic literature.

Bright children, enlightened adults

Let’s start with Deary, Batty and Gale (2008), who conducted a cohort survey which found that in a sample of over 7 000 British people born in 1970, who took mental tests at the age of 10 and were followed up 20 years later to assess their social attitudes and views, ‘higher general intelligence at age 10 is associated with more broad-minded attitudes toward social issues at age 30’.

They entitled their paper Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults. In particular, they found that intelligent children grew up with a high degree of social liberalism, non-racialism (which the paper, incorrectly in my view, describes as ‘antiracism’), political trust (or at least a non-cynical view of government and equality before the law), social liberalism, as well as positive views towards working women.

The same authors, together with Schoon and Cheng, followed this up in 2010 by another cohort study, this time of 8 800 British people born in 1958, tested for intelligence at age 11, and surveyed on educational and occupational attainment, and social attitudes at the age of 33. Again, they found, ‘[t]here was a direct association between higher [intelligence] at age 11 and more liberal social attitudes and political trust at age 33.’

Cognitive ability and prejudice

Contrast this with Hodson and Busseri (2012), who found that ‘lower general intelligence in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology’.

Onræt, Van Hiel and De Pauw did a meta-analytical review in 2015, which also concluded that ‘lower cognitive ability to be associated with stronger endorsement of right-wing ideological attitudes and greater prejudice’.

The authors added that ‘the effect strongly depended on the measure used for ideological attitudes and prejudice, with the strongest effect sizes for authoritarianism and ethnocentrism’.

So far, so predictable, then. Intelligent people are more likely to be tolerant and socially liberal, whereas less intelligent people are often intolerant, socially conservative, authoritarian and ethno-nationalistic.

Are Republicans smarter?

This is where it gets interesting. Carl (2014) found that Republicans were, on average, marginally more intelligent than Democrats. What gives?

‘Research has consistently shown that intelligence is positively correlated with socially liberal beliefs and negatively correlated with religious beliefs. This should lead one to expect that Republicans are less intelligent than Democrats,’ Carl writes.

‘However,’ he continues, ‘I find that individuals who identify as Republican have slightly higher verbal intelligence than those who identify as Democrat (2–5 IQ points), and that individuals who supported the Republican Party in elections have slightly higher verbal intelligence than those who supported the Democratic Party (2 IQ points).’

The researcher adds: ‘I reconcile these findings with the previous literature by showing that verbal intelligence is correlated with both socially and economically liberal beliefs. My findings suggest that higher intelligence among classically liberal Republicans compensates for lower intelligence among socially conservative Republicans.’ (My italics.)

Granted, the Trump and post-Trump era of alt-right idiocracy may well have erased the slight advantage Republicans had in 2014, but the fact remains that the classical liberals in the GOP proved to be intelligent enough to drag the average of the knuckle-dragging red-necks up sufficiently to beat the Democrats.

Genetics and political orientation

In among a series of studies on genetic influences on political orientation (apparently, genetic factors account for 30–50% of the variation in issue orientations, ideology, and party identification), Oskarsson et al. (2014) shows that cognitive ability is the primary mediator between genetic traits and political orientations.

In particular, the paper found: ‘Individuals scoring high on cognitive ability tend to support privatisation, oppose high taxes and redistribution of wealth, and favour cosmopolitan immigration and foreign policies.’

That is, they largely support classical liberal positions on economics, in addition to being socially liberal.

This once again suggests that a simplistic left-right axis is insufficient to explain political ideologies, and that an authoritarian-libertarian axis is often more useful. It is that axis that appears to be correlated with cognitive ability, with more intelligent people leaning libertarian.

Libertarian rationality

A final paper of great interest is by Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto, and Haidt (2012), concerning libertarian morality and the psychological dispositions of self-described libertarians.

It is worth a read in its entirety, for its admirably lucid description of how libertarian thought differs from that of right-leaning conservatives and the left-leaning people Americans describe as ‘liberals’. (It notes that libertarians are often called classical liberals, to distinguish them from left-wing ‘liberals’, although they would simply be called liberals in Europe.)

It isn’t wholly complimentary about libertarians, but for the purposes of this column it is sufficient to highlight that the paper found strong support for the hypothesis that ‘libertarians [i.e. classical liberals] will rely upon emotion less – and reason more – than will either [left-leaning] liberals or [right-leaning] conservatives’.

The conclusion is inevitable: smart people tend to be classical liberals. They oppose both left- and right-wing authoritarianism, and support liberal principles both in socio-political and economic contexts.

Now, if only everyone were smart, perhaps classical liberals could win elections.

[Image: Le Penseur (The Thinker) by Auguste Rodin. Photograph by Fredrik Rubensson, used under CC-BY-SA licence]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. .