Darren Sherkat, teaches sociology at Southern Illinois University, which is the subject I majored in at Stony Brook. We think along similar lines when it comes to trying to figure out what makes Trump voters tick. He has a more academic approach than just calling them morons and opioid addicts and accusing them of having "obviously" subpar IQs, as I often do, based on a gut feeling rather than rigorous scientific testing. You may have caught my post a few days ago, Why Did So Many Millions Of People Vote For Trump? Not Just Economic Anxiety & Racism. I based a definition of stupidity on this combination: voting for Trump and refusing to be vaccinated and then began a discussion of the role of actual brain damage (in the prefrontal cortex) among religious fundamentalists, who are overwhelmingly Trump supporters, not just among Protestants but even among Jews.
Anyway, I read a recent scholarly paper by Professor Sherkat, Cognitive Sophistication, Religion, and the Trump Vote. You can imagine how excited I got and how quickly I asked him if he could write a guest post for us on the topic here at DWT. He agreed and... here it is, even more wonderful and elucidating than I dared hope! (The chart was designed by Dr. Sherkat. The other decorations I stuck on the page-- so don't blame him.) Please share it with your friends.
Cognitive Sophistication, Religion and Support for Trump
-by Darren Sherkat,
Professor of Sociology, Southern Illinois University
The contemporary United States is a hotbed of anti-intellectual movements and discourse. Conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, the 2020 election, and even the source of devastating wildfires have taken hold among sizeable fractions of the population. Scientific evidence is rejected in favor of opinions spread on social media. Basic information about vaccines, how elections are conducted, and even the biology of human reproduction is dismissed in favor of
misinformation and disinformation peddled by movement entrepreneurs. Fact checking by diligent news agencies has no effect on stemming the disinformation coming from dissembling politicians and pundits. Sizeable fractions of the population have come to accept lurid conspiracies claiming that powerful politicians and celebrities are part of a cannibalistic pedophile cabal.
Yet, the acceptance of misinformation and disinformation, and the embrace of conspiratorial thinking is not distributed evenly in the population. Research shows that the acceptance of conspiratorial thinking is strongly linked to religious beliefs, and particularly beliefs rooted in sectarian Christianity. Christian fundamentalism has also been linked to low levels of educational attainment and other negative socioeconomic outcomes. Educational attainment significantly protects against the embrace of a wide variety of conspiratorial beliefs. Not
surprisingly, the less educated are also significantly more likely to have voted for Donald Trump-- the progenitor or muse of many contemporary conspiracy theories.
The issue of misinformation looms large in discussions of the growth of fascism and totalitarianism. Key scholars like Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt acknowledge that disinformation flows most freely to the cognitively impaired. As Adorno and colleagues wrote: “....the most ethnocentric subjects are, on the average, less intelligent than the least ethnocentric subjects...” (Adorno et al., 1964 :284). Arendt ( 2004:414) similarly argues that totalitarian movements “…recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all the parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.”
Contemporary social psychologists show that citizens who lack cognitive sophistication may not be able to understand and access reliable and valid information about political issues and may be vulnerable to political propaganda, what Gordon Pennycook and David Rand refer to as bullshit receptivity. Low levels of cognitive sophistication may lead people to embrace simple cognitive shortcuts, like stereotypes and prejudices that were amplified by the Trump campaign. Additionally, the simple linguistic style presented by Trump may have appealed to voters with limited education and cognitive sophistication.
Racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and simplistic conspiracies about complex economic, political, and social problems are an easy solution to uncertainties that create stress. People want answers, and they want to believe that the answers they believe are true. Cognitive short cuts, combined with a social network that affirms one’s beliefs, provide an easy way to explain a complex world. Further, politicians often tune their campaigns to speak to the “common man” who has a limited vocabulary and poor understanding of history and politics. As Trump famously said “I love the poorly educated.”
My recent article in Social Science Quarterly examining cognitive sophistication and the Trump vote uses data from the 2018 General Social Survey and uses a commonly employed scale of verbal ability. Above is a chart derived from the logistic regression estimates in the paper. Because very few non-whites voted for Trump, and the ones who did are quite unique, I restrict analyses to white respondents. Presented are the predicted percentages of Trump voters by scores on the 10-point vocabulary exam, controlling for region, gender, rural residence,
income, marital status, number of children, age, and education, and then compared for respondents who have a college degree and those who don’t.
Overall, the model predicts that almost 73% of respondents who missed all 10 questions would vote for Trump (remember, that is controlling for education and the other factors), while about 51% who were average on the exam are expected to vote for Trump. Only 35% of people who had a perfect score on the exam are predicted to be Trump supporters. Notably, this very strong, significant effect of verbal ability can be identified within educational groups. While non-
college whites certainly turned out more heavily for Trump, the smart ones did not---only 38% of those with perfect scores are expected to go for Trump, and only 46% of non-college graduates who scored a standard deviation above the mean. The same is true for college graduates-- low cognition college graduates were more likely to vote for Trump. The poorly educated, indeed.
I go on to explore some of the key factors that influence the relationships between cognitive sophistication and the Trump vote, focusing on the importance of religious identifications and beliefs. People with sectarian Protestant religious identifications (Baptists, Pentecostals, and the like) and people with fundamentalist religious beliefs have been shown to have significantly lower levels of cognitive sophistication and scientific literacy. Conversely, people who reject religious identification and religious fundamentalism have higher levels of cognitive sophistication. Controls for religious identifications (or lack thereof) reduces the impact of cognitive sophistication on the Trump vote by 20%. Adding religious fundamentalism and secularism to the model eliminates the significance of cognitive sophistication.
Social psychologists generally view cognitive ability as a psychological trait-- something that his relatively unchanging. As a sociologist, I see cognitive sophistication as a product of social environments. Religious fundamentalists have tightly structured communities and restrict their interactions with people outside of the group. They discourage educational attainment beyond high school, and constrain children’s educational opportunities even in high school. Worse still, sectarian religious groups were pivotal for setting up the segregation academies that took off after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and accelerated more with the implementation of desegregation in the 1970s. Fundamentalist colleges like Liberty and Oral Roberts multiplied and increased their enrollments. The deregulation of primary and secondary education also
enabled fundamentalist parents to “homeschool” their children with almost no regulation or oversight. It is no accident that the low-cognition voters are overrepresented among sectarians and fundamentalists.
What is really depressing isn’t just the poles of the vocabulary exam, it’s the average. The mean and median of the scale is 6-- so half of white Americans missed 4 of the easy vocabulary questions. If you are that deficient, it would be a struggle to read a single article in the New York Times. To try to get your information from print media would be impossible. Hence, most Americans get most of their information from television news or talk radio. No big words, just