Conservative Syndrome could help explain link between religiosity and lower intelligence

New research indicates that social conservatism can help explain the negative correlation between religiosity and cognitive abilities.

There exists a cluster of psychological traits and attitudes that have been described as the “conservative syndrome.” The term isn’t meant to describe conservatism as a disease. Rather, “syndrome” denotes that a number of traits and dispositions associated with conservatism are correlated with each other.

The new study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, suggests that the “conservative syndrome” is associated with lower intelligence, and religiosity is only a part of it.

“There have been quite a few studies, including those recently published in the journal Intelligence, that have reported a negative correlation between IQ and religiosity,” said study author Lazar Stankov, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Sydney.

“Much of our own cross-cultural work and studies of militant extremist mindset (MEM) have shown that religiosity is best understood as an aspect of social conservatism. However, expert in intelligence tend to view religiosity in isolation rather than in its broader context. My aim was to point out that social conservatives, not just religious people, tend to score somewhat lower on measures of intelligence.”

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from 8,883 participants from 33 different countries. Fluid intelligence was assessed using a number series test, which requires participants to find the missing number in a sequence.

In line with previous research, they found that people who scored lower on the intelligence test were more likely to be religious. The researchers also found that endorsement of traditional values, the belief that power should be concentrated at higher levels of a government and conservative political beliefs moderated the link between lower intelligence and religiousness.

“It should understand that social conservatives, including very religious people, tend to be more restricted in their views of the world,” Stankov told PsyPost. “Because of their lower IQ they are more close-minded and afraid of change. They also tend to be more nasty towards those who do not belong to their own group.”

While the conservative syndrome may be associated with lower intelligence, the effect may not be very large.

“There exist meta-analytic studies that report negative correlations between cognitive abilities and both conservatism and religiosity, and I believe that the link is well documented in the literature,” Stankov said.

“I may add, however, that while negative correlations cannot be questioned, some recent work indicates that the strength of the relationship at least in Western countries is weaker than previously thought.”

The study, “Conservative Syndrome and the understanding of negative correlations between religiosity and cognitive abilities“, was authored by Lazar Stankov and Jihyun Lee.