Seeing a young man hoist a Hitler salute in 2017, most people probably don’t think, “here is a Rhodes Scholar.” Racists stereotype others, for the most part, but there are also stereotypes In regards to racist. And the stereotype about racists is, well, they’re kinda dumb.
But a new study complicates the narrative that only unintelligent people have prejudices. The article, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: general, suggests that intelligent people are actually more at risk of stereotyping others.
The study consisted of a series of experiments, all of which suggested that people who performed better on a pattern detection test – a measure of cognitive ability – were also faster at forming and applying stereotypes.
First, researchers at New York University showed 271 participants a series of images of red, blue, and yellow cartoon aliens with different facial features, associated with a statement of behavior. pleasant (“gave a bunch of flowers to another alien”) or a rude (“spat in the face of another alien”):
Most of the pairings were random, but two were skewed so that savvy observers could spot a pattern: 80% of blue aliens were associated with hostile behavior, and 80% of yellow aliens were associated with nice people. Subjects were unsure whether the statements about the aliens were true or false. In this way, the study attempted to mimic how people actually form prejudices about certain groups, such as through anecdotes in the media or through performances on TV shows.
Later, subjects were asked to choose which alien had committed a given behavior in a queue:
Participants then took a test called Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices, a model-based exam that’s a common measure of human intelligence.
Participants who were the best pattern detectors were more likely to make stereotypical errors: they tended to attribute friendly behaviors to the bad yellow alien and hostile behaviors to the bad blue alien. During this time, they were less likely to attribute the behavior to a different colored alien.
A second study showed similar results, but for implicit measures of bias. That is, the smarter participants were faster at stereotyping aliens during a word sorting task, even if they didn’t realize they were doing it.
Next, the researchers tried it out with human faces, showing a new set of participants a series of computer-generated images of men with wide or narrow nose bridges:
Again, 80% of men with narrow nose bridges were associated with friendly behavior, while 80% of men with wide nose bridges were believed to be hostile. Participants were then paired with a new set of photos of men for a trust game using counterfeit money. Again, higher pattern detectors gave characters with narrow nose bridges more money, suggesting they had learned the stereotype of friendliness and used it to judge new men.
These depressing results suggest there’s a downside to being smart – it puts you at risk for over-reading a situation and drawing inappropriate conclusions. But there is hope. In the second part of the study, the researchers showed that while intelligent people learn and apply stereotypes more readily, they also unlearn those stereotypes quickly in the face of new information.
When smart participants received new conflicting information about the nose bridge men, for example, they stopped belittling them in the trust game. The worst pattern finders, on the other hand, didn’t update their thinking in the same way. The same thing happened when the researchers tried to get participants to unlearn certain gender stereotypes.
Jeopardy champions and post-docs might (reasonably) be a little offended by this study. After all, education is one of the best bulwark against ignorance we have. Exposure to counter-stereotypical stories and information (often the kind of stuff you get from school) is one of the best ways to combat racial prejudice. Indeed, other studies have found the exact opposite, that lower intelligence is linked to higher prejudices. In a 2012 study, for example, Americans who scored lower on a measure of abstract reasoning were also more prejudicial towards gay men.
According to Geoffrey Wodtke, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, it could be that, because this study focused on unrealistic stereotypes – on cartoon aliens or computer-drawn men, instead of, say , real-life groups like gay people or immigrants. – intelligent people might have been less careful to suppress their stereotypical thinking. “It is highly likely that high potential individuals are … able to learn and effectively apply stereotypes in a vacuum, but also be better suited to social norms and concerns about not igniting conflict intergroups, ”he said.
When researchers ask “what do you think of African Americans?” Rather than “what do you think of this cartoon alien?” The smarter participants might just pay more attention to what they say.
Indeed, Wodtke conducted a study in which whites with better verbal skills were less likely to be prejudiced against blacks, more likely to recognize racial discrimination, and more likely to support racial equality in principle. But they didn’t put their money where their mouths were: Compared to less verbally gifted whites, more articulate whites were less likely to support school bus programs or affirmative action.
He also warned that “the real world is much more complicated than the psychology lab.” Historical and social contexts play a major role in most types of real-world stereotypes. Wodtke provided an example via email:
… We know that racist stereotypes about blacks with low intelligence or poor work ethics, for example, are not the simple act of whites observing the behavior of different racial groups, noting a correlation between the color of the skin and perceived intelligence, then naively apply these generalizations in new interactions with blacks. Rather, they emerged because whites colonized and enslaved black populations in pursuit of their economic interests, and in an effort to legitimize these actions both for themselves and for the subordinate population, they developed and propagated complex ideologies on, among other things, the intellectual inferiority of blacks.
When I asked Jonathan Freeman, professor of psychology at New York University and co-author of this study, about these conflicting results, he told me that there could be other factors that predict both higher intelligence and less overall bias, such as socioeconomic status or exposure to diversity. In this 2012 study, for example, “individuals who had greater capacity for abstract reasoning had more contact with external groups, and more contact predicted less prejudice. “
In other words, being smart can put you at greater risk for prejudice, but you can still fight those instincts by questioning your thinking and getting to know people who aren’t like you. As Freeman has shown, this new information may very well defeat the stereotypes that you are prone to forming in the first place.