My problems with politics, part 2: we, the electorate

Just how smart is the electorate, anyway? How can we be sure we’re making the right decisions when we’re voting for someone?

As mentioned previously, our political views are heavily influenced by instinct and emotion – but is that all?

In a study by Deary et al (2008), there were some subtle differences in IQ between supporters of various UK parties in the 2001 election (and in voting intentions for the 2005 election). People who voted had a higher average IQ (104) than those who did not (99.7).

People voting for the two biggest parties (Conservative and Labour) had very similar average IQs (103.7 and 103 respectively); the highest average IQs were found among voters for the economically-left-wing and socially-liberal Greens and Liberal Democrats (108.3 and 108.2 respectively); the lowest average IQs were for the more authoritarian voters of the UK Independence Party (101.1) and the British National Party (98.4).

Does it mean much? Well, the average IQ is 100 with a standard deviation of 15; in other words just over two-thirds of people have an IQ between 85 and 115. The voters are… well, pretty average, actually. You can probably make something of the difference between the highest and lowest scoring groups, but not much more than that.

People tend to endorse socially-conservative ideology when they have to give a fast response, or if they are already burdened with other mental tasks. It’s not that social conservatives use low-effort thinking; instead, it seems that low-effort thought promotes social conservatism. People with higher blood alcohol levels were more likely to be socially conservative as well.

A conservative politician with high blood-alcohol levels.

The finding by Hodson and Busseri (2012) that people with lower IQs are more likely to be racist, homophobic and vote for socially conservative political parties could be explained in terms of having less mental ‘processing power’ to see things from someone else’s point of view. Dogma and ideology find appeal among people with lower intelligence too, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is solely a ‘right-wing’ phenomenon. (Conflation of ‘right-wing’ economic views with socially-conservative views is one of the pitfalls of the two-party system in US politics; one has to be very careful when reading about political viewpoints, since definitions can and do change from one country to another.) As Holmes (1968) and Ichheisser (1970) found, people overestimate the number of others who share their views, especially fundamentalists. (A good summary of this ‘false consensus’ effect can be found here.)

Partisan voters are unable to recognise their own bias. In a study of American voters in the 2004 US election, the subjects were asked to evaluate information criticising Democrat John Kerry or Republican George W Bush or neutral figures such as actor Tom Hanks. MRI scans showed political affiliations were based on emotions and assumptions; parts of the brain associated with reasoning weren’t as active. Partisan voters will discount any information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs, so they would deny contradictions in their own candidate that they had no difficulty detecting in the opposing candidate. Republicans and Democrats did not differ in the way they responded to contradictions in the neutral figures, but Democrats responded to Kerry as Republicans responded to Bush.

What about non-partisan voters? Surely they can be relied upon to be more rational about the candidates they vote for? Sadly not. In a study involving Swiss children aged 5-13 years old, Antonakis and Dalgas (2010) found that the winners of elections can be predicted by nothing more than voters’ preferences of the candidates’ faces. It seems that when all else fails, we end up choosing whoever appears to be the least incompetent.

This doesn’t exactly help me in the next election.

(To be continued…)

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3 responses to “My problems with politics, part 2: we, the electorate

  1. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 3: politicians | Observaterry·

  2. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 4: party pooper | Observaterry·

  3. Pingback: My problems with politics, part 7: policies and stupidity | Observaterry·

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