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Smart's Dark Side: More Intelligent People More Likely to Judge on Stereotypes

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Those blessed with brains with strong "pattern matching" capabilities enjoy a number of benefits, including a greater aptitude for learning languages, better understanding the feelings of others, and spotting opportunities. However, a New York University (NYU) study suggests they also may have a dark side.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that pattern matching is a major contributor to intelligence, and the greater the capability, the more likely an individual is to work more effectively, earn more money, be physically and mentally healthier, be more independently minded and less likely to subscribe to authoritarian beliefs.

​However, the NYU study suggests it also makes individuals more likely to learn and apply potentially damaging stereotypes. The team theorized people with superior cognitive abilities may be equipped to efficiently learn and exploit stereotypes about groups, be they ethnic, gender, social or otherwise — to test out their hypothesis, they conducted six online studies involving 1,257 individuals, recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk survey website.

In the first two, volunteers saw pictures of aliens that varied on four dimensions (color, face shape, eye size, ears), with most blue aliens associated with an "unfriendly" behavior (such as spitting in another alien's face) and most of the yellow aliens associated with a friendly behavior (such as giving another alien a bouquet of flowers). The volunteers also completed items from Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices, assessing pattern-matching ability.

​A subsequent memory test charged the participants with pairing previously seen faces with their earlier behaviors — but there were also some new blue and yellow faces that hadn't been seen before in the mix too. Participants better at pattern-matching were more likely to attribute unfriendly behaviors to new blue aliens than new yellow aliens — suggesting they'd learned color-behavior stereotypes more readily, and applied them.

In the third and fourth studies, volunteers were shown realistic pictures of male human faces, manipulated so most with a wide nose (for some participants) or a narrow nose (for others) were paired with negative behaviors such as jeering at a homeless person. Most of the faces with the other nose type were paired with friendly behaviors, such as, again, sending flowers to someone.

​After viewing the faces, the volunteers played a trust game, involving sharing money, which they were led to believe was an interlude unrelated to the study. Before the game began, they each chose an avatar from a large group of faces to represent them online, they played 12 rounds the game, each time with a different partner who was represented by their own avatar.

The volunteers were not in fact playing with real partners, and the researchers manipulated their "partners'" avatars, so some had wider noses, and others had narrower noses. There were also female "partners" whose nose width did not systematically vary. The team found volunteers who did better on the test of pattern detection gave less money to partners whose avatars had a nose width related, in the earlier trial, to unfriendly behavior.

​Such results suggest there may be a dark, depressing side to greater intelligence, although they run contrary to previous research, such as a 2012 Brock University paper that found a strong correlation between lower abstract reasoning abilities and homophobia, and a 2016 University of Toronto study which concluded individuals with better verbal abilities were less likely to be prejudiced against other races, more likely to acknowledge racial discrimination, and more likely to support racial equality in principle.

Indeed, results in other areas were more promising, when these volunteers were given new information that contradicted stereotypes they had developed, the better pattern-detectors were also quicker to update their stereotype, reversing their biases in the process.

In a final experiment, the team used real-world stereotypes, traits believed to be commonly associated with men (such as being more authoritative) and with women (such as being more submissive).After counter-stereotype training, being told being authoritative is more associated with women rather than men, for example — good pattern-detectors showed a stronger decrease in stereotyping. In essence, individuals with superior pattern detection abilities are naive empiricists, learning and updating their conception of stereotypes based on changing information.

​However, there are almost certainly drawbacks to greater pattern-recognition, including an increased propensity for obsessive-compulsive behavior.

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