Cognitive ability’s application to politics

by on October 3, 2017

RESEARCH published (but not widely published) this week has the potential to change the practice of the art (or perhaps science) of politics. Francisco Perales, of the University of Queensland, was looking at the marriage plebiscite, but his work has much wider application.

Earlier he looked at the demographics of who would be likely to vote Yes or No. This might help campaigners target people according to age, gender and postcode. He used the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey – a very large and detailed survey that is representative of the Australian population – which among other things asked those surveyed about their attitudes to same-sex marriage, human rights and other political attitudes.

His latest research, though, was even more revealing. The HILDA data also tested people for cognitive ability, asking them to recite numbers backwards and matching symbols and numbers and the like.

Perales then linked cognitive ability with attitudes to gay rights, same-sex marriage and the like.

The result was that the higher a person’s cognitive ability the more likely they were to support gay rights, same-sex marriage, women’s emancipation, women’s capability as political leaders, and single mothers.

He adjusted the figures for education, religion and ethnicity and the correlation was still there.

“The association was substantially and statistically significant,” he reported.

He thought the lesson for Yes campaigners was not to appeal to reason, because that would be lost on many No voters, but to appeal to emotion.

Indeed, to date, the Yes campaign has been run with significant emotional appeal – an appeal to fairness. It seems to be having a great deal of success with polls showing a strong Yes win as very likely.

“The results suggest that, on average, people who stand against equal rights for same-sex couples are less likely to have cognitive resources that are important to participating in meaningful debate,” Perales said.

“These may include the ability to: engage in abstract thinking and process complex chains of ideas; separate arguments based on facts from unfounded ones; not feel threatened by changes in the status quo; and critically engage with new or diverse viewpoints.”

Surely this research has wider application. Attitudes to climate change, renewable energy, vaccines, sugar taxes, and so on might also have a correlation with cognitive ability.

Emotion, propaganda, experts’ views, and a range of evidence from the easily grasped to the more difficult contribute to what attitudes people have to such things.

An exchange between the Archbishop of Rheims and the Lord Chamberlain, Monseigneur de la Tremouille, in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan tells us something about this.

It is 1429. The Archbishop pines for a simpler life. He said he would like to “seek peace for my spirit with Aristotle and Pythagoras rather than with the saints and their miracles”.

“La Tremouille: And who the deuce was Pythagoras?

The Archbishop: A sage who held that the earth is round, and that it moves round the sun.

“La Tremouille: What an utter fool! Couldnt he use his eyes?”

(By the way, Shaw did not use apostrophes, but he appears to have lost that battle. Some utter fools use them when not needed, with plural nouns, for example.)

It did not take long for almost everyone to know the world is round and moves around the sun because the evidence is easily grasped – such as a ship sailing one direction and arriving at its starting point.

However, in 150 years probably fewer than two thirds of people accept the Theory of Evolution in parts of the world where education to mid to late teens is compulsory. A recent Australian opinion poll had a third believing in creationism. A Gallup poll has that figure at 38 per cent in the US.

Evolution requires a higher level of cognitive ability to understand.

More accept climate change than evolution. A recent Australian poll had those thinking climate change a hoax as low at 21 per cent.

Perhaps those who accept it can “use their eyes”, to use La Tremouille’s words.

Therein lies a clue.

When the evidence becomes more obvious or easier to understand more people will accept something. The more difficult the evidence, the fewer people will accept something, because they do not have the cognitive ability to understand the evidence.

The evidence for future climate change has for some decades been compelling and conclusive, but it has not been obvious, until very recently when the climate has actually changed. The earlier evidence was mostly in the realm of physics and chemistry and so was easily dismissed by people without the education or cognitive ability to understand it.

But now more people are seeing that the climate has changed with, among other things, stronger and more frequent extreme weather and high temperature records being regularly broken.

The evidence for Evolution, on the other hand, is less easily observable or understandable, hence a stubborn third of the population rejecting it – more than 10 percentage points more than those who reject climate change.

So as the evidence of climate change has poured in, become more obvious, and taken less cognitive ability to comprehend, we can see why the figures reveal that quite a lot of creationists out there accept climate change.

(Of course, there are some people with extremely high cognitive ability who use that ability to explain away what it happening.)

So how might this affect the practice of politics? Alas, it shows that the evidence and merit of the argument will not win over a lot of people. They can only be won over with slogans and appeal to emotion. Maybe more political practitioners are seeing this and hence the Brexit, Trump, Hanson phenomena.

It may help explain what has happened, but, alas, it does not provide any answers as to what to do about it.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 30 September 2017.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joe 10.07.17 at 10:21 pm

Interesting. On similar lines, I wonder if there is a correlation between cognitive ability and empathy.

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