A 15-year study of young people in Finland found that education level, nonrational thinking, cognitive potential, and cognitive performance were not associated with social intolerance — i.e., intolerance toward different attitudes, lifestyles, cultures, or values of others. On the other hand, higher social intolerance was associated with low flexibility, high perseverance and low persistence. The study was published in Brain and Behavior.
Social intolerance predisposes people to adopt prejudices, negative evaluations or emotional responses towards individuals with different political, religious, sexual or ethnic backgrounds. Prejudices are, in turn, associated with tendencies to discriminate against members of outgroups.
Researchers have proposed various psychological factors as potentially predisposing a person to social intolerance. These factors include the ideologies of parents in childhood, threat perceptions, proneness to anxiety, religious beliefs and personality traits like agreeableness and openness to experience, as well as certain aspects of moral development. Some studies on twins even suggested that genetic factors might play a substantial role in developing social intolerance.
Another factor often seen to be associated with intolerance is lower education. “There is evidence that low educational level, low cognitive abilities, and certain cognitive styles may act as susceptibility factors for development of social intolerance and prejudices,” study authors explain, but note that this evidence has substantial limitations.
This inspired them to conduct a study of their own that used a longitudinal approach to overcome the limitations. The aim of the study was to “investigate the relationship of educational level, cognitive test performance, polygenic cognitive potential, and cognitive styles with social intolerance in adulthood.” They used data from the Young Finns study.
Participants of the study were people born between 1962 and 1977 and they completed first assessments in 1980 when they were between 3-18 years old. The latest assessments were collected in 2012, when participants were 35-50 years old. The total number of participants was 3596 and all were ethnic Finns.
Participants completed assessments of social intolerance in 1997, 2001 and 2012, cognitive styles in 1997, which included distractibility, flexibility, persistence, perseverance, and mystical thinking, cognitive performance in 2011, and socioeconomic factors of participant’s parents in 1980 as well as their own in 2011. Researchers also made assessments of participants’ cognitive potential based on the available genetic data.
Results showed that neither family income level in childhood nor education level of participants or their parents in childhood were associated with social intolerance. On the other hand, participants with high levels of income in adulthood did have a very slightly lower average intolerance level. Results did not show any association between cognitive potential or performance on cognitive tests and social intolerance.
“Regarding practical implications, our study suggests that merely raising educational level or providing cognitive training may not be the most effective ways to reduce social intolerance iWestern countries such as Finland,” the study authors wrote.
Social intolerance was found to be associated with cognitive styles. People who were more intolerant tended to be more distractible and more perseverant, but less persistent and flexible. When the analysis was repeated with controlling for all other factors included in the study, results showed that people who were more intolerant tended to show lower persistence, lower flexibility and higher perseverance.
Persistence is the disposition to continue working toward the goals despite temporary frustration or challenges (e.g., “I usually continue working until I have completed the task”). Flexibility is the ability to adapt one’s behavior to unexpected changes of the situation or circumstances (e.g., “Changes in my plans make me nervous”; “I resist changes in my daily program”). Perseverance is the disposition to repeat a behavior despite changed circumstances, even when that behavior is not appropriate for the new situation and the inability to rethink previous decisions and change behavior accordingly.
“Our findings tentatively suggest that targeting certain cognitive styles (i.e., how an individual processes acquired knowledge) would more effectively diminish social intolerance, if supposing that there might be some causal relationships between cognitive styles and social intolerance,” the researchers said.
The study gives an important contribution to the study of psychological underpinnings of social intolerance. However, the study design does not allow for any cause-and-effect conclusions about the relationships between factors. Additionally, all the participants were ethnic Finns and results on other cultures might be different.
The paper, “Does social intolerance vary according to cognitive styles, genetic cognitive capacity, or education?”, was authored by Aino Saarinen, Liisa Keltikangas-Järvinen, Henrik Dobewall, C. Robert Cloninger, Ari Ahola-Olli, Terho Lehtimäki, Nina Hutri-Kähönen, Olli Raitakari, Suvi Rovio, and Niklas Ravaja.