New psychology research indicates that cognitive ability exacerbates political polarization in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, published in Intelligence, found that people with greater verbal ability tended to have more polarized responses, which may be related to their selective consumption of partisan media.
“We were initially interested in tracking risk perceptions over time to a novel health threat, and thought COVID-19 would be a good opportunity to do so — we started collecting data in February 2020 with no idea how much of an impact COVID would have. We also thought that perhaps reactions to COVID might be politically polarized, but had no idea how huge the effects of ideology would become,” said study author Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, a research assistant professor at Ohio State University.
For their research, Shoots-Reinhard and her colleagues collected five waves of data from 1,267 U.S. residents between February and July 2020. As part of the study, the participants completed two tests of cognitive ability — a measure numeric ability and a measure of vocabulary knowledge.
The researchers found that ideological polarization was stronger among those who scored higher on the test of verbal analogies. But this was not the case for numeric ability.
Liberal participants were more likely than conservatives to report that the COVID-19 pandemic had caused them distress. Liberals also perceived the virus as a greater threat to personal finances as well a greater threat to food, water, and medical resources. Conservatives, on the other hand, were less willing than liberals to purchase products from Wuhan, China. These differences were heightened among those with higher verbal ability.
The tendency to consume partisan-aligned media was also greater among those with higher verbal ability. That is, as verbal ability increased, more liberal (or conservative) participants became more likely to consume more liberal (or conservative) media.
“It’s intuitive to think that intelligent people are less biased and that people who disagree with us are less intelligent,” Shoots-Reinhard told PsyPost. “But we (and others have) found that people with greater cognitive skills are more polarized. What is new about our study is that 1) we examined the ability-related polarization over time in a novel topic and 2) we compared different types of cognitive ability.”
“We consistently found that verbal ability, not numeric ability, predicted polarization in emotional reactions and risk perceptions to COVID,” Shoots-Reinhard explained. “We also found that people higher in verbal ability were more likely to selectively consume political media (e.g., liberals looked for COVID news in the New York Times; conservatives used Fox News) and interpret information consistently with their ideology (e.g., conservatives were more likely than liberals to think if current cases were rare they would continue to be small).
“This selective exposure and interpretation contributed to the polarized responses to COVID. This means that we have to look for ways to encourage people to listen to and incorporate other viewpoints—we can’t just give people information and expect that it will reduce polarization. We have to encourage actively open-minded thinking.”
To solidify the findings, the researchers also examined data from 4,494 individuals in the longitudinal Understanding America Study. They found a similar pattern: verbal ability predicted greater political polarization of COVID-19 risk perceptions. Verbal ability was also related to polarization surrounding “Medicare for All” and banning certain semi-automatic rifles.
The results are also in line with previous research, which has found that more intelligent people tend to be more ideologically intolerant than the less intelligent.
But as with all research, the new study includes some caveats.
“We need to do more research on what processes contribute to polarization in addition to exposure and interpretation, when those higher in ability will be more vs. less polarized, and whether verbal ability is the best predictor of polarization in other topics,” Shoots-Reinhard said. “We only examined COVID reactions and two other political topics and there are lots of other types of intelligence besides numeric and verbal that we haven’t investigated yet.”
The study, “Ability-related political polarization in the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Raleigh Goodwin, Pär Bjälkebring, David M. Markowitz, Michael C. Silverstein, and EllenPeters.