May, 2014

Education, Intelligence, and Attitude Extremity

  • Michael D. Makowsky

  • Stephen Miller

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Education and general intelligence both serve to inform opinions, but do they lead to greater attitude extremity? The potential civic returns to education include not only the sophistication of citizen opinions, but also their moderation. We use questions on economic policy, social issues, and environmental issues from the General Social Survey to test the impact of education on attitude extremity, as measured by deviation from centrist or neutral positions, while controlling for intelligence. We use quantile regression modeling to identify effects on both the most extreme beliefs as well as the most ambivalent. We find that intelligence is a moderating force across the entire distribution in economic, social, and environmental policy beliefs. Completing high school strongly correlates to reduced extremity, particularly in the upper quantiles. College education increases attitude extremity in the lower tail, while postgraduate education increases extremity in the upper tail. Results are discussed in the context of enlightenment and motivated-reasoning theories of beliefs and education. The relevance to political party core and swing voters is briefly discussed.

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