According To One Study, There's An Unfortunate Downside To Being Intelligent


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Ever found that you are quick to apply stereotypes to people? If so, you may have a higher cognitive ability than those who don’t.

That suggestion was made in a study by New York University. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, it found that smarter people were more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes.


“Superior cognitive abilities are often associated with positive outcomes, such as academic achievement and social mobility,” said David Lick, the study’s lead author, in a statement. “However, our work shows that some cognitive abilities can have negative consequences – specifically, that people who are adept at detecting patterns are especially quick to learn and apply social stereotypes.”

In the research, 1,257 people on Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” survey tool, which pays people for taking part in surveys, took part in six online experiments designed to test this hypothesis. One involved people studying male faces with noses of varying width paired with a description of past behavior, such as sending flowers (perceived as friendly) or laughing at a homeless person (unfriendly, if you needed clarification).

Participants then played an online trust game where they allocated money to a partner. The partner could then split the money how they chose. But importantly, the partners also had an avatar, with their nose manipulated to be wide or narrow. Avatars with a wider nose, perceived with accompanying a negative behavior trait, were awarded less money.

Wider noses were seen as being more negative. David Lick and Jonathan Freeman

Most importantly, those who performed best at a pattern detection test (associated with higher cognitive ability) were more likely to apply stereotypes to people. However, these same people were also more likely to update their stereotypes when given new information.


“The good news is we also found that these individuals are better able to diminish their stereotyping when presented with new patterns that challenge existing stereotypical associations,” said co-author Jonathan Freeman. “Our findings may help pave the way for future research that leverages pattern detection or other cognitive abilities for reducing social biases.”

So, if you’ve got more brain power, you might be more likely to judge people on stereotypes – but you’re also more likely to change your opinion when you learn something new. So it’s not all bad.


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