Are people of lower intelligence generally conservative? An analysis of the evidence

A conservative's misspelt sign: Get a BRAIN! Morans.

A conservative doing himself no favours.

There’s been a political psychology firestorm happening recently: several studies have emerged which seem to suggest that conservative attitudes are linked to lower cognitive ability, prejudice, and low-effort thinking. This isn’t a new debate; a study from 2009 showed that higher childhood intelligence predicts a tendency to vote for left of centre parties and to be more politically engaged in adulthood. Several studies from the late 90s and early 00s link the personality trait openness to experience with both intelligence and left-wing attitudes, which means that left-wing people tend to be more tolerant and open to different lifestyles and attitudes, and this element of personality is correlated with higher intelligence.

All this research points towards the conclusion that people with low intelligence and cognitive ability tend towards conservatism, but this obviously does not then mean that all conservatives are of low intelligence and cognitive ability (that would be the fallacy of affirming the consequent). The research actually indicates this:

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.

John Stuart Mill, in a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington (May 31, 1866)

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Why do so many people care so little about stealing music?

Cartoon image of a pirate iPod

There’s been a bit of a furore recently over a blog post by Emily White, an intern at NPR All Songs Considered and GM of her college radio station, in which she acknowledges that while she has 11,000 songs in her music library, the vast majority have been obtained through borrowing from friends, mix CDs, ripping music from her college radio station, and – yes – even some from file sharing sites. She’s only ever paid for about 15 CDs in her life.

This isn’t particularly surprising; in the internet age, it is astonishingly easy to access music for free, and a huge number of people do – 95% of music downloads in 2008 were illegal. What has surprised many people is her unashamed tone:

“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience… What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices… All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”

There have been prominent articles condemning and defending this attitude. I don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about the morality of her post. What I find interesting are the parallels we can draw with other moral behaviour and what this may say about human moral cognition.

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I hate Shakespeare: artistic canons and the expectation that certain art must be liked

I recently read an article entitled I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t “Get” Art (and its follow-up I Still Don’t “Get Art, and its follow up Ok, Do It: Teach Me How To “Get” Art) with interest. Each article is essentially a humorous diatribe written by an exasperated art school graduate viciously expressing his dislike of the kind of art style that can be loosely grouped under the terms contemporary, modern or conceptual (I’ll use modern for the rest of this post). Considering he is an art school graduate, he clearly does not equate all art with modern art; the titles of each article are clearly designed to be deliberately controversial. What he is actually saying is that he doesn’t “get” modern art, not the entirety of the human cultural practice of art itself. Most of each article is dedicated to declaring how poor he thinks certain examples of modern art are, in the first article focussing solely on a Tracey Emin retrospective.

Tracey Emin's "My Bed"

Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”

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Mass Effect 3’s ending, the “betrayal” of fans, and artistic integrity

The Mass Effect series of games are amongst some of the most popular and most critically acclaimed video games of recent times, with each game scoring over 90% on average on Metacritic and GameRankings (The Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 2 even scoring as high as 96% on Metacritic). Exact sales figures are hard to find, but EA confirmed that 3.5 million copies of Mass Effect 3 were shipped for its launch. Mass Effect 3 (ME3) is the end of the series, completing Commander Shepard’s story-arc in the Mass Effect universe.


The story, quickly summarised, involves the discovery  in the first game that an ancient race of highly advanced machines called the Reapers, which have been hiding in the dark space between galaxies for 50,000 years, are about to return to “harvest” the advanced organic races of the galaxy, something they have done over and over in 50,000 year cycles. You spend the next two games trying to learn more about them and how they can be stopped. The final game involves rallying the troops of the galaxy together and building a superweapon in a desperate attempt to destroy the Reapers before they destroy the advanced organic species of the galaxy and head back into dark space, completing this “cycle” of destruction. It is the stuff of epic science fiction, a battle of good versus evil on a grand scale, but with an added element that only video games can allow: you get to make many major (and minor) decisions throughout the series which have wide-scale consequences on how the story advances, developing your “own” Commander Shepard character with his/her own custom back-story and personality. This means that each person playing the games has a huge say in how the story unfolds, creating a kind of immersion in the story that even the best epic science fiction narratives told outside the medium of games cannot allow.

Commander Shepard Mass Effect 3 promo picture

The man himself, Commander Shepard

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Facebook addiction, thy name is Andrew Hirst.

This study just appeared in my inbox:

“For many people, there’s an automatic assumption that the Internet is bad. This is one of the first studies to show that there’s a psychological benefit of Facebook,” Hancock said.

In the study, 63 Cornell students were left alone in the university’s Social Media Lab; they were seated either at computers that showed their Facebook profiles or at computers that were turned off. Some of the off computers had mirror propped against the screen; others had no mirror.

Those on Facebook were allowed to spend three minutes on the page, exploring only their own profiles and associated tabs. They were then given a questionnaire designed to measure their self-esteem.

Those in the mirror and control groups were given the same questionnaire. While their reports showed no elevation in self-esteem, those who had used Facebook gave much more positive feedback about themselves. Those who had edited their Facebook profiles during the exercise had the highest self-esteem.

Interesting stuff. My first thought was to post it on Facebook, of course. Rather than doing that, however, I started thinking about the effect Facebook has on my life. I quickly decided that I’m probably a borderline/full-blown Facebook addict.  I spend an inordinate amount of time on the site, often at the expense of other work I could be doing. If I see something funny or interesting on the web my first thought is to post it on Facebook. When there’s a lull in conversation I get out my iPhone and check it (in fact I have been known to do this mid-conversation which is pretty rude of me). I use Facebook as my main source for news stories, despite the fact that I’m quite clearly missing out on a lot of stuff because of this; I used to use my iGoogle homepage (with its varied and comprehensive stock of RSS feeds) everyday for this but I’ve recently just focussed on Facebook.  In fact a couple of weeks ago I asked my girlfriend to change my password so I couldn’t go on it for an evening when I had some serious work to get done. It was an odd experience. Part of me kept getting frustrated that I couldn’t check Facebook, but another part of me was really glad… it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was the most productive academically that I’ve been in quite some time. As soon as I’d finished the essay, however, I was straight back on Facebook.

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A very personal account of my problems with philosophy

This piece is a personal account of various intellectual problems I have experienced over the years with academic philosophy. Note: this kind of philosophy can be referred to as the Western analytic tradition, which begun in Ancient Greece with Plato, Artisotle and co. and is still the main focus of philosophy curricula in Western universities. Other kinds of philosophy may have different problems (and different merits).

Early study

I chose to study philosophy at A-level on what was basically a whim – I knew little about the subject beyond vaguely remembered names like Plato and Kant and I had grown up in a cultural environment where philosophy was… well, not quite treated with disdain, but seen as a little bit pointless. My other three subjects, psychology, maths and English language, were in my mind way more useful and worthy of study. Philosophy was just a mildly intriguing subject that sounded more interesting than geography or chemistry, which I – after 5 years of study – was well and truly sick of. Little did I know that I’d still be studying it 9 years later.

Right from the start, philosophy had a completely unprecedented effect on my life that no other subject has come close to. I began asking myself questions I had never asked myself before… questions I never even realised had existed. I distinctly remember those initial moments of seriously considering the arguments for the existence of god for the first time, and how it seemed that my world had suddenly become brighter, fuller and full of purpose. There were these huge questions out there that I had never even thought about! Worst of all, there were billions of people who’d never thought about these questions either! My life’s purpose became quite clear: 1) find the answers to these amazing questions and 2) teach these questions to everyone who would listen.

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Mental illness or cognitive style?

I’ve had an interest in clinical psychology for some time, having studied abnormal psychology during A-level and having been diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder many years ago. I’m particularly interested in the definition of mental illness and how it is perceived by both the profession and the public. I guess my interest is primarily philosophical: does mental illness really exist? How is it to be differentiated from “normal” suffering? Can it legitimately be compared to other kinds of (much better understood) illness, such as influenza and cholera?

Mental illness ≠ “regular” illness

Long ago I came to the conclusion that mental illness could not exist in the way that influenza or cholera can. Firstly, both these illnesses can be demonstrated to have a specific cause (viral, bacterial) and their mechanisms of action are fully understood. Patients may display different symptoms, but a group of similar symptoms exist for every person who has the illness. Mental illness cannot be traced back to a specific identifiable source, their underlying neural mechanisms are not understood and symptoms may vary wildly between individuals with the same mental illness. Rarely does a patient display symptoms that make them a perfect fit for a diagnostic category.  Major depression, for example, is rarely displayed as just major depression – often various anxieties, phobias, or other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are also diagnosed.

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