High IQ = Liberal, Atheist, Monogamous
Yet another academic study finds correlation between IQ and political and religious beliefs. This one throws in sexual practice, too.
Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.
Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.
The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning — on the order of 6 to 11 points — and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say. But they show how certain patterns of identifying with particular ideologies develop, and how some people’s behaviors come to be.
The reasoning is that sexual exclusivity in men, liberalism and atheism all go against what would be expected given humans’ evolutionary past. In other words, none of these traits would have benefited our early human ancestors, but higher intelligence may be associated with them. “The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward,” said George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey, who was not involved in the study. “It also makes perfect sense that more intelligent people — people with, sort of, more intellectual firepower — are likely to be the ones to do that.” Bailey also said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ. In fact, aligning oneself with “unconventional” philosophies such as liberalism or atheism may be “ways to communicate to everyone that you’re pretty smart,” he said.
The study looked at a large sample from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health [Add Health], which began with adolescents in grades 7-12 in the United States during the 1994-95 school year. The participants were interviewed as 18- to 28-year-olds from 2001 to 2002. The study also looked at the General Social Survey, another cross-national data collection source.
Participants who said they were atheists had an average IQ of 103 in adolescence, while adults who said they were religious averaged 97, the study found. Atheism “allows someone to move forward and speculate on life without any concern for the dogmatic structure of a religion,” Bailey said. “Historically, anything that’s new and different can be seen as a threat in terms of the religious beliefs; almost all religious systems are about permanence,” he noted.
The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines “liberal” in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. “Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with,” he said.
Without access to the study itself, it’s difficult to know what to make of it. Most obviously, if it didn’t control for education, the findings are meaningless. For a variety of reasons, education leads people to be more scientifically oriented, materialistic, skeptical, and tolerant of differences. Further, success in the educational arena is an indicator of being able to conform to social expectations — showing up on time, not disrupting others, and so forth — so it’s not surprising that there would be an uptick in the ability to maintain a monogamous relationship. And, of course, religiosity and political conservatism tend to go hand-in-hand, further confusing the relationships.
[UPDATE: A commenter at Ron Chusid‘s discussion of the piece points to an online PDF of the study, titled “Why Liberals and Atheists are More Intelligent.” There is indeed a control for years of education. Parental education isn’t factored in, except to the extent it correlates with earnings. With all the controls factored in, the author finds “adolescent intelligence has a larger effect on adult political ideology than any other
variable in the model except for religion.”]
The causality issue aside, the correlation seems to remain. But let’s not get terribly excited about what all this means. The vast majority of Americans — including high IQ Americans and well educated Americans — are religious. For that matter, the vast majority of Americans — including those of below average intelligence — are in monogamous relationships or strive to be. We’re talking about small differences in aberrant behavior, not a chasm.
It’s also noteworthy that the correlation is between intelligence measured at adolescence and ideology, religiosity, and monogamy as young adults. It would be interesting to see if the correlation strengthens or fades with time. This particular cohort is being studied on through 2002; I don’t know if they’ll continue to be tracked.
- Tom Maguire makes the interesting point that the liberals who hated the very notion of IQ in the context of The Bell Curve some years back seem to love it when studies coming out showing that they’re smarter. But that’s not surprising.
- Don Sensing, who is both conservative and not only religious but a minister, notes that species don’t “move forward,” they merely adapt to changing conditions, and argues that Zanazawa’s definition of “liberal” — support for private charity to help others — is quite dubious.
- Ilya Somin argues that there are numerous methodological flaws in the study: conflating liberalism with universalism, relying on self-identification of ideology, and a seeming assumption that being endorsed by intelligent people makes an ideology “correct.” The second point is especially interesting: “For example, more African-Americans describe themselves as ‘conservative’ than ‘liberal,’ even though this description fits neither their issue positions nor their voting patterns. In recent decades, the term ‘liberal’ has acquired a negative connotation, so much so that many liberals have taken to calling themselves ‘progressives.’ This makes it likely that some liberal survey respondents won’t identify with the term, especially among the less-educated and less politically knowledgeable.”