Here’s Why Incorrectly Linking Race and Intelligence Is Worse Than You Think
June 4, 2013 4 Comments
When the Heritage Foundation published its controversial anti-immigration policy paper last month people from all corners of the internet swiftly banded together to debunk the paper’s claims about Hispanics having lower intelligence. Zack Beauchamp had the definitive takedown of co-author Jason Richwine’s Harvard dissertation, which laid out many of the Heritage paper’s arguments in more detail, but the basic one-sentence rebuttal is that IQ is so heavily dependent on environmental factors and opaque genetics that it’s useless to try to draw policy conclusions from the relationship between intelligence and race.
A swift response to the trumpeting of links between race and IQ is important because these types of claims can be extremely destructive. You don’t need to possess a great deal of insight to envision how it’s bad for society to incorrectly view a certain group of people as cognitively inferior. If such beliefs become popular it will lead to more discrimination, distorted public policy, and decreased motivation among the disparaged groups.
Yet psychology research suggests that the costs of believing in links between race and IQ are even more substantial than one would think. The reason for this is that people are generally motivated to justify the society they live in. It’s easy to be happy if everything around you seems hunky dory, but if you’re hyper-sensitive to all the injustices in your world then it’s harder to enjoy something as trivial as the latest episode of Mad Men. So we filter how we see the world in a way that helps legitimize why things are the way they are. Are women under-represented in corporate leadership positions? It’s because they’d rather be at home with their kids. Are people starving in Africa? Well, their broken political systems make it hard to actually get aid into the hands of people who need it. Are a disproportionate number of Hispanics failing to graduate from college? It’s because they’re actually less intelligent.
One result of the motivation to legitimize the status quo is that the perceived stability of a society can have a tremendous effect on attitudes and behavior. If this is the social system we’re stuck with, there’s no point fretting over changing it. The best way to feel good about life is probably just to view the system as favorably as possible. On the other hand, if the system is likely to change, suddenly it’s worth taking action because life will be even better if you’re able to establish a more equitable system.
Two recent studies illustrate the impact of perceived social stability. In the first study, India Johnson of Elon University presented participants with information that described a student’s successful or unsuccessful attempt to change the nature of campus orientation activities. Johnson found that students who read about the unsuccessful attempt, and who were thus presented with a stable status quo, were less likely to prefer seeing negative information about their school. The results suggest that viewing the system as unchangeable made people less likely to seek out negative information that might motivate them to change the system.
The second study, which was led by Stanford’s Kristin Laurin, uncovered a similarly destructive consequence of perceived social stability. Laurin and her team found that when participants were told there was stability rather than instability in the domain of gender inequality — i.e. that the number of female executives was unchanged in the last decade — participants were less likely to support redistributive economic policies. In other words, the stability of inequality in one domain made people less likely to support addressing inequality in an unrelated domain. A follow up experiment found that among liberal participants, mere exposure to the concept of stability made people more likely to view inequality as legitimate.
Thus the problem with linking Hispanics to lower IQ is not only that it directly leads Hispanics to be treated poorly, but that it could also indirectly lead people to legitimize other unequal social arrangements. The idea that Hispanics naturally have lower intelligence is one that screams stability — if genetics are keeping people on the lower rungs of society, that’s not something that’s likely to change. And if low intelligence will forever keep Hispanics out of the upper class, then people might as well convince themselves that such an outcome is not a problem, whether they do it by rationalizing an unequal social system or by avoiding evidence that inequality exists. Furthermore, as Laurin’s study shows, linking social inequality to the alleged stability of Hispanic intelligence could even lead people to ignore the problem of other social inequalities.
It’s fortunate that the reaction to the Heritage Foundation paper was swift and fierce, but people should keep in mind that the claims in the paper are probably even more destructive than they think. And so the next time somebody decides to disseminate questionable claims about race and intelligence (and there will be a next time) it’s important to be just as vigilant in debunking them.
Johnson, I., & Fujita, K. (2012). Change We Can Believe In: Using Perceptions of Changeability to Promote System-Change Motives Over System-Justification Motives in Information Search Psychological Science, 23 (2), 133-140 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611423670
Laurin, K., Gaucher, D., & Kay, A. (2013). Stability and the justification of social inequality European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1949