Posted by: Lexi | February 9, 2012

The Importance of Critical Thinking

There’s been a rumor going around the internet for a while now that conservatives are stupid. And now Science proves it! Only, not really. This is all in response to a rather interesting study (full text) that examined the correlation between cognitive ability, socially conservative ideology, and prejudice. Since no one else on the blogosphere seems to have taken the time to actually read the study (I’m looking at you, HuffPo), I’ll give a little bit of a summary here.

The study was actually broken down into two parts. In one, the researchers took data from two longitudinal cohort studies in the UK. They got scores on measures of cognitive ability at age 10, and then measures of conservative ideology and racial prejudice at around age 30. They found a negative correlation between cognitive ability and racism, and between cognitive ability and conservative ideology. There was a positive correlation between racism and conservative ideology.

The second part of the study was conducted in a laboratory in the US. The participants completed a test of abstract reasoning skills, completed a right wing authoritarian scale, and completed a scale to determine their level of homophobia. They also indicated how many homosexuals they knew personally. The result was a negative correlation between abstract reasoning skills and homophobia and authoritarian ideology. There was also a negative correlation between intergroup contact (knowing more homosexuals) and homophobia.

One of the most interesting things about these studies was the way in which the correlations were calculated. The researchers found that there were modest but significant correlations between cognitive abilities and prejudice. But, these correlations were not as strong as the correlations between authoritarian values and prejudice. What this means is that the connection between lower cognitive abilities and prejudice is exacerbated by authoritarian values. Conversely, the correlation is mitigated by more intergroup contacts.

The results of these studies are interesting, but the conclusions drawn from them might be a little off base. The researchers concluded, “In psychological terms, the relation between g[latent cognitive ability] and prejudice may stem from the propensity of individuals with lower cognitive ability to endorse more right-wing conservative ideologies because such ideologies offer a psychological sense of stability and order.” What they are implying in their conclusions is that cognitive ability is an innate, immutable quality, and people who don’t have it are doomed to be eternally confused by the complexity of reality. That’s a really disappointing and pessimistic conclusion, and also one that leaves those of us to the left of center in a position to easily say, “LOLconservatives!” and go on with our day.

But cognitive ability and abstract reasoning aren’t innate qualities. They can be learned and improved with the right kind of education. I don’t mean “education” in the strict “How much school have you completed?” sense. I mean education in critical thinking. We can see from the result of the homophobia study that simply increasing contact with other groups has a significant negative correlation with homophobia.

As skeptics, we shouldn’t take these results as an excuse to dismiss people who hold unskeptical views (and let’s face it, racism and homophobia are blatantly unskeptical belief systems). We should take this as more reason to teach children abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills. Imagine what could happen if we made critical thinking and abstract reasoning a regular part of education. Children who learn how to deal with complexity and ambiguity will grow up having a better understanding of the world in which they live, and will in turn be less likely to hold prejudiced beliefs.



  1. “Imagine what could happen if we made critical thinking and abstract reasoning a regular part of education”

    I’m imagining… but of course imagining won’t cut it now will it…;)
    I’m afraid that the authoritarian link that you noted is a very ingrained part of our educational system. And the farther you move into private religious based education the worse it gets.

    Also… very well written, almost like you know what you’re talking about. I’ll have to up my game…:D (or get better at faking it.)

    • Yeah, it’s unfortunate that the authoritarianism is such a big part of our educational system. That’s something that really needs to change if we want to raise critical thinkers. But then, critical thinking is dangerous. 😉

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