Are Smart People More Liberal?

Are smart people more liberal?

Is there a cognitive difference between liberals and conservatives?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives are multifaceted, encompassing cognitive styles, moral judgments, brain structures, and processing of valenced information. These distinctions highlight the complex interplay between cognitive processes and political orientation, providing valuable insights into the psychological underpinnings of political beliefs.


The cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives have been a subject of extensive research in political psychology. These differences manifest in various cognitive styles, moral judgments, and even brain structures. This article explores the cognitive distinctions between these political orientations, drawing on multiple studies to provide a comprehensive overview.

Cognitive Styles and Reflection

Research indicates that liberals and conservatives differ in their predispositions toward intuitive versus reflective thinking. Conservatives, particularly social conservatives, tend to be less reflective, while social liberals are more reflective. This relationship between thinking style and political orientation is particularly evident in social attitudes1. Additionally, liberals are found to think more analytically, an element associated with Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) thought, compared to conservatives8.

Moral Judgments

Conservatives and liberals exhibit different structural emphases in moral judgment. Conservatives tend to emphasize the intrinsic value of actions, often mentally simulating themselves performing those actions, while liberals focus on the expected outcomes of actions. This structural approach is linked to distinct moral foundations, with conservatives showing a greater opposition to harm in scenarios like the trolley problem2. Furthermore, conservatives rely more on fast, emotional processes (System 1), whereas liberals rely on slow, reasoned processes (System 2) when making moral judgments6.

Brain Structure and Function

Biological differences also play a role in the cognitive distinctions between liberals and conservatives. Studies have shown that liberals have increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, while conservatives have increased gray matter volume in the amygdala. Functional imaging reveals that liberals exhibit greater activity in the left insula, whereas conservatives show greater activity in the right amygdala during risk-taking tasks. These findings suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes when thinking about risk3.

Processing of Valenced Information

Conservatives and liberals process positive and negative information differently. Conservatives tend to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information, which affects their perception of the physical and social world. This difference is evident in their slower response actions to negative stimuli and avoidance tendencies, as observed through hand movement trajectories during categorization tasks5.

Complexity of Thought

The complexity of thought also varies between liberals and conservatives. While it is often suggested that liberals are more complex thinkers, this complexity is domain-specific. Liberals exhibit higher complexity in certain topics, whereas conservatives show higher complexity in others. This domain-specific complexity challenges the notion that conservatives are generally less complex thinkers4.

Motivated Social Cognition

Conservatives and liberals generate different attributions for the causes of social problems. These differences can be explained by motivated correction, where conservatives are more likely to correct personal attributions under cognitive load. This suggests that conservatism may be a form of motivated social cognition, with conservatives enhancing their binding foundation intuitions when cognitive resources are compromised7 9.

Neurocognitive Sensitivity

Greater liberalism is associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, indicating a higher neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering habitual response patterns. This suggests that liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity, and novelty compared to conservatives10.


Are smart people more liberal?

Idan Solon has answered Near Certain

An expert from Independent in Intelligence, Evolutionary Biology, Political Science

Let’s distinguish between the questions, “Are smart people more liberal?” and “Are liberals smarter?” 

(My interpretation is that the term “liberal” is being used in the United States sense of a consistent orientation toward the political left on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.)

This distinction is necessary because people of high intelligence orient consistently toward the political left on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.  But other demographics are also more likely to orient toward the political left (e.g., blacks, Hispanics, women, young people) and some of these demographics do not tend to have higher average intelligence than the overall population. 

On surveys, exit polls, and public opinion polls, if people are queried regarding their positions on single issue measures, there tends to be a monotonically positive relationship between intelligence and political leftism.  An exception is if the issue involves rights for a demographic that scores lower on intelligence tests, in which case there tends to be a left-wing orientation by that demographic on that issue. Consequently, on that issue, there tends to be a U-shaped relationship between intelligence and leftism, with the most intelligent and the least intelligent people orienting most toward the political left (Solon, 2008; 2010; 2014; 2015).  For example, poor people tend to test lower than the rest of the public on intelligence measures and tend to orient toward the left on economic issues. On economic issues, there tends to be a U-shaped relationship between intelligence and political leftism (Solon, 2014; 2015).  On social issues, poor people tend to orient more toward the right and there tends to be more of a monotonically positive relationship between intelligence and political leftism.  The general pattern by which people vote more toward the left on issues involving their own demographic is often assumed to be due to self-interest influence (e.g., Weeden and Kurzban, 2015), but I argue that it actually owes more to personal experience influence (Solon, 2014; 2015). 

In older literature, scholars have argued that the observable relationship between intelligence and leftism (Deary et al., 2008; Kanazawa, 2010) on measures relating to composites of issues (e.g., ideological identification, party affiliation) rather than single issues owes to a monotonically positive relationship between intelligence and right-wing positions on economic issues and a monotonically positive relationship between intelligence and left-wing positions on other issues (Carl, 2014; Pinker, 2011).  However, research indicates that even on economic issues, highly intelligent people orient more to the political left than people of more moderate intelligence (Solon, 2015).  Additionally, the Pew Research Center’s (e.g., 2004; 2009; 2014) political typology studies clearly identify a cluster of individuals that is the best educated (an indicator of intelligence) cluster and this cluster strongly orients toward the political left on economic, social, and foreign policy issues.  Furthermore, this general pattern—monotonically positive relationship between intelligence and leftism on most issues; U-shaped relationship between intelligence and leftism on economic issues—is also observable across ten European countries (TNS Sofres, 2005).  

Recent research suggests that if an individual’s intelligence is higher than the 87th percentile, any additional intelligence leads to a greater likelihood of identifying on the political left on composites of issues (Solon, 2015).  At the highest levels of intelligence, the left-right ratio is very high.  I found that individuals receiving elite recognition associated with high intelligence (e.g., Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Grant, Fields Medal, Putnam Competition, Jeopardy Tournament of Champions) are 17 times more likely to make political donations to the political left compared to the political right (Solon, 2014). 

Why do intelligent people orient strongly toward the left?  I argue it is because intelligent people are more likely to perceive an external control ideology and they are more empathetic and trusting toward people they do not know (Solon, 2014).  This leads to a greater likelihood of seeking to confer rights to minority demographics, which is at the core of what defines the political left relative to the political right. 


Carl, N. 2015. Does intelligence have a U-shaped relationship with leftism? Intelligence, 49: 159-170. 

Deary, I., Batty, G. and Gale, C. 2008. Childhood intelligence predicts voter turnout, voting preferences, and political involvement in adulthood: The 1970 British Cohort Study. Intelligence, 36: 548-555. 

Kanazawa, S. 2010. Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73: 33-57.

Pew Research Center. 2004. Foreign policy attitudes now driven by 9/11 and Iraq.

Pew Research Center. 2005. Beyond red vs. blue.

Pew Research Center. 2009. A religious portrait of African Americans.

Pew Research Center. 2014. Beyond red vs. blue: political typology.

Pinker, S. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Penguin.

Solon, I. 2008. The Intelligent Consensus. Morrisville, NC: Lulu.

Solon, I. 2010. The Intelligent Consensus. New York: Algora.

Solon, I. 2014. How intelligence mediates liberalism and prosociality. Intelligence, 47: 44-53. 

Solon, I. 2015. Scholarly elites orient left, irrespective of academic affiliation. Intelligence, 51: 119-130.

TNS Sofres. 2005. European values.

Weeden, J. and Kurzban, R. 2015. The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 


Are smart people more liberal?

Nachshon Meiran has answered Uncertain

An expert from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Intelligence

Complex. There are studies relating liberal-related beliefs such as atheism to high intelligence, but on the other hand, I am aware of at least one study (conducted in South America, possibly Brasil) showing that left wingers were less intelligent than people holding more central (not right-wing) opinions.


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