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Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated

Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated

Tim Finin, 5:10pm 25 April 2009

“Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated”. How’s that for a provocative opening sentence in an academic paper! Lazar Stankova of the National Institute of Education in Singapore reports this finding in a paper published earlier this year in the Elsevier journal Intelligence.

Lazar Stankova, Conservatism and cognitive ability, Intelligence, v37, n3, pp. 294-304, May-June 2009.

I’ve only scanned the paper, but it looks like a serious study. Here’s the abstract:

“Conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated. The evidence is based on 1254 community college students and 1600 foreign students seeking entry to United States’ universities. At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, Vocabulary, and Analogy test scores. At the national level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with measures of education (e.g., gross enrollment at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels) and performance on mathematics and reading assessments from the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project. They also correlate with components of the Failed States Index and several other measures of economic and political development of nations. Conservatism scores have higher correlations with economic and political measures than estimated IQ scores.

The paper describes a meta-analysis based on data from three studies that employed the same set of psychological measures. Twenty-two of these measures were selected, drawn from four domains: personality, social attitudes, values, and social norms. While the paper finds strong support for the hypothesis that low cognitive ability is associated with high conservatism it doesn’t make any statements about causality.

There is room for disagreement about the definition of conservatism and it’s projection to the 22 measures. The following narrative definition of conservatism is given, which is broad and dominated by personal and social aspects. It’s clearly not limited to the political or economic domain.

“The Conservative syndrome describes a person who attaches particular importance to the respect of tradition, humility, devoutness and moderation as well as to obedience, self-discipline and politeness, social order, family, and national security and has a sense of belonging to and a pride in a group with which he or she identifies. A Conservative person also subscribes to conventional religious beliefs and accepts the mystical, including paranormal, experiences. The same person is likely to be less open to intellectual challenges and will be seen as a responsible “good citizen” at work and in the society while expressing rather harsh views toward those outside his or her group.”

If you can’t access the paper on Elsevier’s Science Direct digital library, you can look at three key tables here: Table 1, Table 2, and Table 3.


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