Social conservatism and intelligence

In reply to an attack made upon him by Sir John Pakington for calling the Conservative party “the stupid party,” John Stuart Mill, while admitting the phrase did occur in his ‘Representative Government’, went on to say, “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. Suppose any party, in addition to whatever share it may possess of the ability of the community, has nearly the whole of its stupidity, that party must, by the law of its constitution, be the stupidest party; and I do not see why honourable gentlemen should see that position as at all offensive to them, for it ensures their being always an extremely powerful party . . . There is so much dense, solid force in sheer stupidity, that any body of able men with that force pressing behind them may ensure victory in many a struggle, and many a victory the Conservative party has gained through that power.”1

While the assertion that most stupid people are conservative has never been seriously doubted it seems to have gone into overdrive recently and I do wonder if the fact that because so many moderates have disappeared from the conservative parties, not only in the UK, but also in the US and Australia, that the conservative parties have now become the stupid parties. This is, of course, under the assumption that, in Australia, the extremists now running the Liberal Party tend to be less intelligent than the moderates, many of whom have disappeared from the parliamentary party. Some recent studies indicate that the relationship between intelligence and social conservatism differs from the relationship between intelligence and economic ‘conservatism’ (in fact, economic liberalism)2.

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about the negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity3. It was largely based on the work of Zuckerman et al. which showed such a negative correlation4. However, muddying the waters was the possible mediating effect of personality3.

In a recent review article summarising several cross-cultural studies, Stankov argues that there is a cluster of psychological traits and attitudes that can be defined as a ‘conservative syndrome’5. Although it sounds disparaging, it isn’t meant to describe conservatism as a disease, but rather as a number of traits and attitudes associated with conservatism that are correlated with each other. This indicates that social conservatism can help explain the negative correlation between religiosity and cognitive abilities. It is argued that religiosity is best understood as an aspect of social conservatism. Many researchers into intelligence tend to view religiosity in isolation rather than in its broader context. Stankov’s aim was to point out that social conservatives, not just religious people, tend to score lower on measures of intelligence5.

In addition, much of the previous work in this area was based on a psychological definition of conservatism, rather than a political one. The term ‘conservative syndrome’ was coined to describe a person who attaches particular importance to respect for tradition and conformist values like obedience, self-discipline and emphasises the need for social order coupled with concerns for family and national security. Those with ‘conservative syndrome’ also tend to subscribe to conventional religious beliefs and have a sense of belonging to and taking pride in a group with which they identify, while expressing rather harsh views toward those outside their group. The same person is likely to be less open to intellectual challenges and will appear to be a ‘solid citizen’ at work and in society5, 6.

The members of conservative political parties are a disparate bunch, as I noted in a piece I wrote nearly six years ago7. However, Stankov notes that if conservatives are defined politically (as they should be according to political scientists) the term ‘conservative syndrome’ refers only to social conservatives. Among conservatives generally there is also a group referred to as economic liberals (economic bastards in my terminology7). This latter group comprises market fundamentalists who tend to be better educated than those who are social conservatives, and the relationship to intelligence differs6

As a comparison, looking at the difference between Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison (and Tony Abbott too). Turnbull maybe an economic bastard, but he is not a social conservative like Morrison and Abbott; social conservatism seems to drive he latter two. Turnbull was a Liberal Party moderate, whereas Morrison and Abbott are of the religious right. Given that many of the moderates (e.g. Falinski, Zimmerman, Sharma, Frydenberg) bit the dust during the 2022 election, the Liberal Party has fallen more under the spell of the social conservatives. The reader should remember that after Abbott was ousted by Turnbull, he used to sulk with a lunch group in the Monkey Pod room in Parliament House. That group included Abbott, Sukkar, Seselja, Taylor, Kelly, Goodenough as well as Peter Dutton7. So, it is tempting to say that the Liberal Party has become the political party for the stupid. Has the original misunderstanding of Mill’s assertion by conservatives become more accurate? To me, it looks like it has.


  4. Zuckerman, M., Silberman, J & Hall, J.A., 2013. The relation between intelligence and religiosity: a meta-analysis and some proposed explanations. Personality and Social Psychology Review 17(4), 325-354.
  5. Stankov, L., 2017. Conservative Syndrome: Individual and Cross-Cultural Differences. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 48 (6).


  • James Faulkner says:

    I’ve always maintained that there is a causal loop between selfish and stupid. While a naturally stupid person will be selfish, a person who has CHOSEN selfishness is stupid.
    The same causal loop exists between conservatism and stupid.
    Perhaps what we are really seeing is a little bit of psychological algebra.

    Conservatism = stupid
    Selfish = stupid

    • admin says:

      The thing that strikes me is that such attitudes as selfishness are those of people who do not see anything beyond their own short-term benefit. To me, that seems extremely stupid. I was having a short discussion with someone online about narcissists in government and business, and mentioned one instance where such a person stole some work off a woman, published it under their own name, and didn’t seem to realise that there would be consequences. The consequences were expensive, but not dire enough in my opinion. That inability to see beyond the immediate gratification reeks of stupidity. It also seems to be a common problem for many politicians: those who constantly lie (Morrison); those who abuse people (Tudge and others appearing at the Robodebt RC); those who have their fingers in the till at our expense (Joyce). Do they think that they are above these things coming back to bite them? It strikes me as very stupid behaviour. If I decided that I wanted to drive at 100kph past a school because I was a sovereign citizen or some other halfwit who was sick of the ‘nanny state’, I’d have a small chance of being pinged by a speed camera, but other possible outcomes could be catastrophic for other people and for me. Ignoring the possibilities of such catastrophic outcomes seems to be similarly stupid, and may be a reasonable analogy for the stupidity of these people.

    • Arthur Baker says:


      There is so much wrong with your simplistic “analysis” it’s difficult to know where to start. No, actually, on reflection it’s quite easy. Let’s start with “a person who has CHOSEN selfishness is stupid”.

      Do you choose to preserve your own existence and try your best to avoid death every day? Congratulations. So do I. In that sense, we have CHOSEN (your emphasis) selfishness. That’s a brand of selfishness called self-preservation, which has very nicely preserved the existence of our species to the extent that you and I had a chance to be born, and were born. If our forebears hadn’t practised this form of selfishness, our species would have been extinct and we wouldn’t have been having this discussion.

      Now let’s look at “a naturally stupid person will be selfish”. Really? If people weren’t selfish in the sense that they protected their own existence, they’d soon die. Even stupid people don’t particularly want to die earlier than they need to. Let’s adjust that to “a naturally stupid person will neglect to protect their own existence”. There, fixed that one for you.

      Finally, let’s look at your “little bit of psychological algebra”. Unfortunately it’s got nothing to do with psychology or mathematics. Instead, it’s an instance of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

      Its form is:

      1: All Z is B.
      2: All Y is B.
      3: Therefore, all Y is Z.

      In your proposition,

      1: All conservatism is stupid.
      2: All selfishness is stupid.
      3: Therefore, (huh, you didn’t even bother to complete the syllogism, so where do we go from there?).

      Here’s where we go. All conservatism is not stupid. Some conservatism is endangering the planet and its climate, other conservatism (preserving what has existed before) is very sensible.

      All selfishness is not stupid. Some of it keeps our species alive.

      Hit me with your best shot, fire away.

  • Jon says:

    Not sure this is the appropriate topic for my comment but it does have some relevance so I’ll lay it on you.

    Just came across this piece of conservative disinformation which was ably assisted by a scientist and a media outlet, both of ‘whom’ ought to know better. I was provided the first link by a covid cooker/recalcitrant on a deals website of all things. I don’t know if the scientist was naive, verballed, or straight out complicit because I can’t find his response. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions. The one retort I found (second link) suggests the NY Times has a habit of publishing covid misinformation, although it’s author has a particular, if more credible, bias also. The third link is to the actual published paper.

    Update. I found the interview with Jefferson and he has no excuse. See link 4
    Imo ‘his’ paper has only marginal relevance to the pandemic situation where no/low immunity existed. His interview shouldn’t taint the other authors.

    Opinion piece: The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?


    Jefferson et al’s paper: f23.html
    Jefferson’s interview:

    Quite naughtily I didn’t read the opinion piece fully after finding that Stephens’ opening pars were clearly contradicted by the actual study and the fact that he didn’t bother to mention the study caveats nor what data it was based on (see numbered points below containing extracts from the paper). After seeing his background I understand why he failed to provide that very important context.
    (1) The evidence summarised in this review on the use of masks is largely based on studies conducted during traditional peak respiratory virus infection seasons up until 2016. Two relevant randomised trials conducted during the COVID‐19 pandemic have been published, but their addition had minimal impact on the overall pooled estimate of effect.
    (2) Do physical measures such as hand‐washing or wearing masks stop or slow down the spread of respiratory viruses?
    Key messages
    We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses based on the studies we assessed.
    (3) What are the limitations of the evidence?
    Our confidence in these results is generally low to moderate for the subjective outcomes related to respiratory illness, but moderate for the more precisely defined laboratory‐confirmed respiratory virus infection, related to masks and N95/P2 respirators. The results might change when further evidence becomes available. Relatively low numbers of people followed the guidance about wearing masks or about hand hygiene, which may have affected the results of the studies.

    That last sentence is damning. It’s is patently obvious that where people are ignoring mask mandates those mandates will have little effect on transmission reduction. What we want to know is whether high adherence to mask mandates (eg Taiwan) had an effect on transmission (especially pre-vaccine), and approximately what percentage improvement (or otherwise) was involved. This study doesn’t attempt to do that.

    Many studies have a narrow focus but given its aim it’s surprising that they didn’t compare mask usage, transmission rates and overall outcomes in countries with high, moderate and low mask use. Perhaps there were too many other parameters which can influence outcomes but a rough correlation (requiring follow up) could likely/possibly be found.

    The rebuttal is scathing. Seems others have major objections to both the opinion piece AND Tom Jefferson’s portrayal of it, AND the study itself. It will be interesting to see what the expert community thinks of the Cochrane paper or whether it is ignored because it was inconclusive and too restricted. That will be science at work, however it confirms for me that there are far too many public statements about papers and their significance which are misleading, intentionally or otherwise. THAT is not good for science’s credibility, especially when the author(s) are complicit.

    Note: there is reference to a social media storm around this. I haven’t looked beyond the above but prima facie that storm is fully justified imo.

    • admin says:

      I don’t subscribe to NYT, so could not read the article and could not find the wsws link. However, I did read Demasi’s interview with Jefferson, and it seems they have a common viewpoint which was manna for Demasi.
      I have been suspicious of DeMasi for a while ever since she spouted stuff on Catalyst which caused her to be given the heave-ho. She now styles herself as a science writer which she was but is a ‘writer’ for the Brownstone Institute
      The Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research aims to evaluate the “global crisis” stemming from the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its stated mission is “constructively to come to terms with what happened, understand why, discover and explain alternative paths, and prevent such events from happening again.”
      It currently publishes articles that criticise COVID lockdowns, question vaccine mandates, and describe masking as “an attack on our communal life.” That may not be surprising given its strong ties to the Great Barrington Declaration, a document published a while ago that advocated lifting all lockdown restrictions on the young and healthy in a bid for promoting ‘natural immunity’. All three of the scientists who were the lead authors of that declaration are senior scholars or authors at the Brownstone Institute – and other contributors have risen to prominence for raising controversial ideas about the pandemic.
      One of those organising the Barrington Declaration was Jeffrey Tucker, a reputed white supremacist and libertarian, who founded the Brownstone Institute.
      There are numerous articles on the misinformation presented by the Brownstone Institute here:
      As an aside, trying to read the tone of the interview, I agree with you that he seems like an opinionated arsehole who seems to think everyone studying mask utility and anyone advising governments are idiots except, of course, him.

  • JON says:

    After you read his interview I’d appreciate your perspective on Jefferson’s unequivocal characterisation of their paper BA. Accurate? Responsible?

    • admin says:

      I just found the wsws item boring it up the NYT article. It seems to be fairly well reasoned as far as I can tell, not having seen the original. It refers to the Leech et al. article to which I refer in the following article. That paper by Leech et al. was, as far as I could tell, an excellent paper.

  • JON says:
    Seems the authors are sticking together, so ignore my earlier disclaimer. Jefferson comes across as an arrogant sob to me.
    A few commentators have thankfully taken the study to task.

    The comments under the last article are instructive and confirm my gut feeling about Jefferson’s bona fides. His statements obviously should be taken with a grain of salt.

    • admin says:

      The vox article also bored it up the Jefferson paper, and the sciencebasedmedicine article is very precise in dealing with the shortcomings of the Cochrane review. Jefferson himself published an article in the Spectator which probably indicates his political persuasion. It is a magazine for RWNJs. Its Australian version is edited by the climate scientist, epidemiologist and cosmologist (sarcasm font) Rowan Dean.

      • JON says:

        My question is why one of his his employers Oxford University permits him to verbal papers which say nothing like what he says in interviews publicly. THAT in itself is a threat to scientific integrity and trust and would – or should – clearly contradict the very basis of Oxford learning and teaching. Comments from doctors and other obviously knowledgeable people in one of those links say that Jefferson is renowned for it. If I was a co-author I’d be calling him out and calling for his head if he continued that behaviour (which he has a history of according to educated comments in one of those links)

        Found another rebuttal which again debunks Jefferson’s bullshit.

        Dean is a purveyor of right wing ‘porn’. No adult capable of basic reason takes him seriously.

        Btw, Blot has been inaccessible to me for at least 2 days, again. Probably not much you can do about it.

        • admin says:

          That LATimes article is scathing of RWNJs in the media (i.e. Stephens). I do not understand why the government simply do not come out and say that it might be wise to wear masks to cut down the Reproduction Number, which in NSW and Vic was just above 1, which means an increasing spread of the virus. Getting it below 1 and keeping it there means the spread eventually fades away.
          As for access. I do not know what the problem is. It was suggested that it may be a browser problem. I had a problem with Facebook recently which would not go away, no matter how often I closed it and reopened it. I tried it in a different browser (Chrome) and the problem disappeared.

          • JON says:

            Not a browser problem. tried both Chrome and Firefox. Next time I’ll see if MS Edge works.

            The NY Times should publish a disclaimer/apology.

          • admin says:

            The NYT has been getting a bit of hammer recently about horseshit in their pages; not just about Covid-19.

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