While Cognitive Ability Varies, Prejudice Seems Universal

A new study finds that when it comes to prejudice, it doesn’t matter if you are smart or conservative or liberal. Each group has its own specific biases.

In fact, the study found that cognitive ability — whether high or low — only predicts prejudice towards specific groups.

“Very few people are immune to expressing prejudice, especially prejudice towards people they disagree with,” said lead author Dr. Mark Brandt of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

For their study, Brandt and Dr.  Jarrett Crawford of the College of New Jersey analyzed data from 5,914 people in the United States that included a measure of verbal ability and prejudice towards 24 different groups.

Analyzing the results, the researchers found that people with both relatively higher and lower levels of cognitive ability show approximately equal levels of intergroup bias, but towards different groups.

For instance, people with low cognitive ability tended to express prejudice towards groups perceived as liberal and unconventional, such as atheists, gays, and lesbians, as well as groups of people perceived as having low choice over group membership, such as ethnic minorities.

People with high cognitive ability showed the reverse pattern, according to the study’s findings. They tended to express prejudice towards groups perceived as conservative and conventional — Christians, the military, big business.

“There are a variety of belief systems and personality traits that people often think protect them from expressing prejudice,” Brandt said. “In our prior work we found that people high and low in the personality trait of openness to experience show very consistent links between seeing a group as ‘different from us’ and expressing prejudice towards that group. The same appears to be true for cognitive ability. ”

While previous work has found that people with low cognitive ability express more prejudice, Brandt said his study found this was limited to only some target groups.

“For other target groups, the relationship was in the opposite direction,” he said. “For these groups, people with high levels of cognitive ability expressed more prejudice. So, cognitive ability also does not seem to make people immune to expressing prejudice.”

The researchers noted they would like to see if their findings will replicate in new samples, with new target groups, and additional measures of cognitive ability.

“We used a measure of verbal ability, which is essentially a vocabulary test,” Brandt said. “Although this measure correlates pretty well with other measures of cognitive ability, it is not a perfect nor a complete measure.”

The study was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)