Here’s Why Incorrectly Linking Race and Intelligence Is Worse Than You Think

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


4 Responses to Here’s Why Incorrectly Linking Race and Intelligence Is Worse Than You Think

  1. Gypsy says:

    People often have negative reactions, or prejudices, to someone who is different from their self or their own group. From these negative reactions comes stereotypes, and the claim that Hispanics have lower IQs sounds like a stereotype to me. In my psychology class, we read about something called the in-group bias. This is our inclination as humans to judge the behaviors of someone in our own group as positive, and the behaviors of someone not in our group as negative. So in this case, an example might be, We have low IQs because we didn’t study as much as we should have; they have low IQs because they are Hispanic. Or maybe the writer/editor of the paper just has a bad case of ethnocentrism.

  2. Nice analysis, Eric. You capture perfectly why the entire race-IQ controversy is both pointless and destructive; and your one-sentence rebuttal of the hereditarian argument is right on the mark: “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.”

    It does not matter how many times the fallacious details of hereditarian arguments are refuted; proponents will continue to produce new (fallacious) variations because the emotional need to affirm the stability and superiority of current social arrangements is so great. Nevertheless, we need to continue the refutations.

    You may be interested in a summary of some of the general flaws in the herediarian argument at the following link:

  3. Student. says:

    From an evolutionary point of view, there’s zero reason for two populations to have identical mental abilities. You’d have to assume that random genetic drift never happened, that environment had absolutley no effect on intelligence and that the last brain affecting mutation happened in Africa some 130,000 years ago prior to the migrations and divergence of modern human populations. This would make the human brain the only organ in the entireity of known nature immune to evolution if true, and would contradict what information we do have about the evolution of the human brain.

    I’ve never know an anthropologist have an issue with stating that you can see humans evolving greater intelligence through the millenia as the brain size increased. We’ve known for decades the average relative brain size of different populations (Encephalization Quotient) is different. Although this fact has been very well kept from the public, with some scientists (such as Gould) claiming the research that showed it was faked, which later re-examination showed to be an incorrect claim. The prevailing expressed opinion of psychology phds is that racial differences in intelligence are at least partly genetic; only 15% at the last survey supported the differences being entirely environmental, although you what never know that from what you see published and televised in mass media sources.

    Whenever this subject is raised you see masses of disingenuous rambling from the ‘all the same intelligence’ supporters, and pages of very well documented scientific research on the part of the ‘racial differences at least partly genetic’ side. The response to this is simply to denounce the ‘racial differences’ supporters as racists, discredited pseudoscience practicioners, liars. In fact anything will be said to avoid dealing with the reality of the numbers head on, which have always shown a difference in average brain size, average tested IQ and a strong hereditary component to intelligence.

    I say this as someone who spent months filtering through years of research attempting to discredit Dr Watson’s well known claims a few years ago. The unhappy conclusion I reached was that the scientists involved generally supported racial differences, had good reason too, and were incredibly shy of saying so for fear of their jobs. It wasn’t a happy few months while I adjusted my world view.

    There’s a great letter by a specialist in human intelligence called ‘Egalitarian fiction, collective fraud’ where she explains this all with facts, figures and references.

  4. Student, the first part of your comment is simply speculation, mixed with dark hints of liberal conspiracies. The second part consists of cherry-picked facts and misses the main point of Eric’s article: that a small group of psychologists, supported by a well-heeled politically-motivated movement outside the field of psychology, has manipulated scientific discourse to perpetuate endless debates about a hypothesized genetic connection between race and IQ, despite evidence that is weak and unconvincing (and that will remain weak and unconvincing for the reasons that Eric so aptly summarized). The reasons why critics of your argument respond with anger is because the argument is pure fluff but is exploited to do real damage to real human beings. I don’t doubt the sincerity if your “conversion,” but sincerity is not scientific evidence.

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