Last February, the conclusions of a study conducted by Brock University in Ontario, Canada, appeared in “Psychological Science,” the highest-ranked and most prestigious empirical journal in psychology today. The journal is often responsible for bringing to light the most interesting developments in the disciplines of cognitive, developmental and health psychology, as well as behavioral neuroscience and biopsychology.
The study found that children who fare poorly in a range of IQ and EQ tests are substantially more likely to harbor prejudiced beliefs and socially-conservative politics in adulthood.
Though it is no longer politically correct to call underperforming children “dumb” or “slow” — and though formal intelligence tests remain under fire from a diverse group of skeptics — there will always exist, mathematically, the bottom 50 percent of any curve. This survey has found a robust correlation between that bottom 50 percent of yesterday’s children and the ingrained dogmatism of today’s social conservatives.
Even more recently we’ve seen a study in “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,” another prominent journal, which connects political conservatism with “low-effort thinking” similar to that of people under the influence of alcohol or other distractions.
“When effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged,” the report concludes, “endorsement of conservative ideology increases.”
To explain their conclusions, both studies surmised a mechanism that is solidly in line with our intuition that a vicious cycle exists between weak minds and mistaken ideologies. Those of weaker intelligence, if intelligence does prove something that is weaker or stronger in some more than in others, gravitate towards socially conservative modes of thought, which stress innate resistance to change and progress and too often extrapolate to the extremist platitudes which breed prejudice.
Granted, there are obviously many sharp conservative minds out there — even if they are often difficult to locate in the mainstream of conservative media. Clearly you don’t get to being a diabolically successful conservative kingpin such as Mitt Romney or Roger Ailes by being unintelligent. But this survey seems to show how so many dunderheads seem to flock to Tea Party rallies, and how stupidity is less of an errant trait that emerges in the voting booth and more of a seed that is sown and tended to over the coarse of an entire lifetime by the conservative power elite.
What is it about the socially conservative ideology that is so enticing to these kinds of low-effort, change-resisting thinkers? I suspect it has something to do with being caught in a reality tunnel, a kind of wishful thinking in which order and simplicity governs one’s experience.
Conservative ideologies love artificial order. Often times, the validation of the sense of purpose at the heart of the conservative worldview is religious or economic in nature — Weber’s “Christian Protestant Work Ethic” remaining the most comprehensive explanation for the Christian right’s curious endorsement of capitalism — and there was perhaps once a time when social conservatism accurately descried the world. But for the last century, at least, their reasoning has been hopelessly misapplied.
Simply put, conservatism oversimplifies a postmodern reality. To say that reality is complicated is an almost comic understatement, but nevertheless, what we see from social conservatism these days is merely a reaction to the diminishing presence of objective truth in our politics. In a relatively sudden halt, we have realized that no one party lays claim to the way the world actually is; we interact, at best, with mere simulations.
Postmodernism is not inherently political, but in practice, it is very threatening to the intertwined theism and capitalism at the core of social conservatism. The more obsolete these doctrines of simplification become in a society that increasingly demands moral relativism, the more vehement and prejudiced the conservative response.
Assuming the psychologists’ conclusions are sound, the question is ultimately what do we make of the grating voice of conservatism in today’s theater. Are conservatives just the prejudiced consequences of dim-witted children, to be discounted and removed from political sphere in the interest of society’s good health? Or must we just ignore them and continue to allow our democracy to grant their clinically-misguided views a token of validity?