Civility and Citizenship - Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part II. Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior

Chapter 12. Civility and Citizenship

A free society demands a citizenry that willingly participates in the civic enterprise, in matters as grand as national elections and as commonplace as neighborliness. Lacking this quality—civility, in its core meaning—a society must replace freedom with coercion if it is to maintain order. This chapter examines the contribution of cognitive ability to the capacity for civility and citizenship.

Most manifestations of civility are too fleeting to be measured and studied. One realm of activity that does leave measurable traces is political involvement, which includes both participation in political activities and some knowledge and sophistication about them.

For assessing any relationship between political involvement and IQ, the best data, surprisingly, are from studies of children, and the results are consistent: Brighter children of all socioeconomic classes, including the poorest, learn more rapidly about politics and how government works, and are more likely than duller children to read about, discuss, and participate in political activities. The gap between brighter and duller children in political development widens with age, unlike the static gap across socioeconomic classes.

For adults, the standard theory of political involvement for many years has assumed that socioeconomic status is the vital link. People at higher-status levels vote more, and they know and care more about political matters than do people at lower levels of status. But the available research offers ample evidence that the key element for predicting political involvement is educational level. The people who vote least and who care the least about political issues are not so much the poor as the uneducated, whatever their income or occupation. Why does education matter so much? The fragmentary studies available indicate that education predicts political involvement in America because it is primarily a proxy for cognitive ability.

The NLSY does not have the data for pursuing this manifestation of civility, but it permits us to explore another aspect of it: To what extent is high inteligence associated with the behaviors associated with “middle-class values”? The answer is that the brighter young people of the NLSY are also the ones whose lives most resemble a sometimes disdained stereotype: They stick with school, are plugging away in the workforce, and are loyal to their spouse. Insofar as intelligence helps lead people to behave in these ways, it is also a force for maintaining a civil society.

America’s political system relies on the civility of its citizens—“civility” not in the contemporary sense of mere politeness but according to an older meaning which a dictionary close at hand defines as “deference or allegiance to the social order befitting a citizen.”1 The wording of the definition is particularly apt in the American case. Civility is not obedience but rather “allegiance” and “deference”—words with old and honorable meanings that are now largely lost. The object of these sentiments is not the government but a social order. And these things are required not of a subject but of a citizen. Taken together, the elements of civility imply behavior that is both considered and considerate—precisely the kind of behavior that the Founders relied upon to sustain their creation, though they would have been more likely to use the word virtue than civility.2

The point is that, given such civility, a free society as envisioned by the Founders is possible. “Civil-ized” people do not need to be tightly constrained by laws or closely monitored by the organs of state. Lacking such civility, they do, and society must over time become much less free. That is why civility was relevant to the Founders’ vision of a free society and also why it remains relevant today. In Part IV, we consider further the link between intelligence and the polity. At this point, we ask what the differences are between people that explain whether they are civil. Specifically, what is the role of intelligence?

Much of what could go under the heading of civility is not readily quantified. Mowing the lawn in the summer or keeping the sidewalks shoveled in the winter, maintaining a tolerable level of personal hygiene and grooming, returning a lost wallet, or visiting a sick friend are not entirely dictated by fear of lawsuits or of retaliation from outraged neighbors. They likely have an element of social engagement, of caring about one’s neighbors and community, of what we are calling civility. Most such everyday acts of civility are too fleeting to be caught in the net of observation that social science requires.

Fortunately, the behaviors that go into civility tend to be of a piece, and some acts leave clear traces that can be aggregated and studied. In the preceding chapter, we examined one set of such behaviors, crime. Crime is important in itself, of course, but it also captures the negative pole of disassociation from society at large and the community in particular. Everything we know about the lives of most criminals suggests that in their off-duty hours they are notcommonly shoveling the sidewalk, visiting sick friends, or returning lost wallets—or doing the myriad other things that signify good neighbors and good citizens. In that light, the chapter on crime may be seen as a discussion of a growing incivility in American life and the contribution that low cognitive ability makes to it.


Political participation is not the thing-in-itself of civility. Most of us can recall acquaintances who show up reliably at town council meetings and are hectoring, opinionated, and generally destructive of community life. But, as always, we are talking about statistical tendencies, and for that purpose political participation is not a bad indirect measure.

Consider the act of voting. We have friends, conscientious in many ways, who do not vote and who even look at us, registering and voting, often at some inconvenience, with bemused superiority. They point out with indisputable accuracy that our ballots account for less than a millionth of the overall outcome of most statewide elections, not to mention national ones, and that no major political contest in United States history has ever been decided by a single vote.3 Are we behaving irrationally by voting?4

Not if we value civility. In thinking about what it means to vote, a passage in Aristotle’s Politics comes to mind. “Man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle wrote, “and he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘tribeless, lawless, hearthless one,’ whom Homer denounces.”5 The polling place is a sort of civic hearth. In the aggregate (though not always in every instance) those who do not vote, or who vote less consistently, are weaker in this manifestation of civility than those who do vote consistently. Think inwardly about why you try to keep up with issues that affect your neighborhood or at least try to do some cramming as an election approaches, and why you usually manage to get to the polling place when the election arrives (or feel guilty when you do not). Are we wrong to assume that the reasons have something to do with a consciousness of the duties of being a citizen and good neighbor? Therein lies the modest claim we make here. There is nothing particularly virtuous or civil about being a political activist, but the simpler ways in which we carry on the basic political business of a democracy betoken the larger attitudes that make up civility.


The connection between intelligence and political involvement has been more thoroughly studied for children than for adults. In part, this is because until recently schools routinely gave IQ tests to children. With the children’s intelligence test scores as a baseline, social scientists could then study whatever variables they were interested in, such as political awareness or interest. Besides being relatively easy to do, studies of childhood political development circumvented some of the questions that arise with adults; children, for example, have no vested political or economic interests (beyond the approval of parents or others) to complicate the analysis of their responses.

One major study assembled a sample of 12,000 children in grades 2 through 8, from schools in middle-or working-class neighborhoods in both large and small cities in various regions of the country in the early 1960s.6 The children provided information about their fathers’ occupations and interest in politics. School records included IQ scores for about 85 percent of the children. The heart of the study was a series of questions about the children’s level and range of political development.7 They were, for example, asked whether they knew which branch of government enacted laws, whether they understood the duties of the president and the courts, whether they ever read about politics in the newspapers or talked about it to their parents or friends, whether they felt that they were protected by the government or whether individuals could exert any political influence on their own, whether they had ever worn campaign buttons or handed out leaflets for a candidate. Their attitudes about voting, about the duties of a citizen, about political change, about legal punishment, among other things, were probed.

The results were predictable in many ways. Younger children tended to see the government in terms of individuals (government = the current president) and as a fixed and absolute entity; older children were better informed, were more likely to think in terms of institutions instead of individuals, and had a clearer sense of the duties of citizenship. The higher a child’s socioeconomic background, the more rapidly his political socialization proceeded. Among the dimensions most affected by socioeconomic status—again, no surprise—was a child’s sense of political efficacy.8

The big surprise in the study was the impact of IQ, which was larger than that of socioeconomic status. Brighter children from even the poorest households and with uneducated parents learned rapidly about politics, about how the government works, and about the possibilities for change. They were more likely to discuss, read about, and participate in political activities than intellectually slower children were. Not only was the gap in political development across cognitive classes larger than the gap across socioeconomic classes, it tended to widen with age, while the gap due to socioeconomic class did not—an important distinction in trying to understand the comparative roles of intelligence and socioeconomic status. IQ differences tend to be dynamic; socioeconomic differences, static. The more important distinction from our perspective, however, is that cognitive ability had more impact, and socioeconomic status virtually none, on a child’s perception of the duties of citizenship. If this be civility, then it is most purely a result of intelligence, at least among the variables examined.

A study of older children—approximately 400 high school students—set out to determine the importance of intelligence, contrasted with socioeconomic status, as a factor in political development.9 The survey questions tapped a wide range of political behaviors and attitudes. From the responses, scales were constructed for fourteen political dimensions. The youngsters were characterized by an overall measure of socioeconomic background, plus separate measures of parental education, family wealth, media exposure, and a measure of verbal intelligence made available from school records. To a remarkable degree and with only a few exceptions, each of the political dimensions was most strongly correlated with intelligence.10 This was true of scales that measured political knowledge, as would be expected.11 But the bright youngsters were also much more aware of the potentialities of government and the duties of citizenship—civility again. A multivariate analysis of the results indicated that intelligence per se, rather than socioeconomic status, was driving the relationships, and that when socioeconomic status was significantly correlated with a dimension of political involvement, it was via its effects on intelligence. It is possible that the importance of intelligence was somewhat inflated in this study because the youngsters were disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, hence underestimating the impact of socioeconomic status in more representative samples. However, the qualitative outcome leaves no doubt that intelligence, apart from the usual socioeconomic variables, has a potent effect on political behavior for teenagers, as well as for preteens.12


Social scientists do not find it easy to dragoon large samples of adult Americans and make them sit still for the kinds of assessments of political involvement that can be conducted with children. But they try nonetheless, and they have had some success, mostly centering on voting.

Depending on the election and the historical period, the turnout in elections for federal officeholders ranges from about 25 to 70 percent, with the recent level in presidential elections in the 45 to 60 percent range. It may or may not be a pity that so many of our fellow citizens fail to vote, but it is a boon to social scientists. With the deep split between voters and nonvoters, voting has been an invaluable resource for gaining a glimpse into the nature of this manifestation of civility.13

Voting and Socioeconomic Class

The literature on voting repeats the familiar story: Most of the analysis has focused on socioeconomic class, not cognitive ability. The standard model of political participation, including voting, is that it is highly dependent on socioeconomic status.14 “College graduates vote more than high school graduates; white-collar workers vote more than blue-collar workers; and the rich vote more than the poor,” as Wolfinger summarized it.15 The connection between political participation and social status is so strong that almost any measure of it, no matter how casual, will pick up some part of the relationship. The impression we all have that elections are settled mostly by the votes of the middle and upper classes broadly construed is confirmed by careful scrutiny, if socioeconomic status is the only measure taken of potential voters.

When we are able to look behind the isolated vote to broader kinds of political behavior, the same relationship prevails. The landmark study on this topic was conducted by Sidney Verba and Norman Nie, who polled several thousand people representing the national population in 1967 not only about their voting but also about other political activities—campaigning, demonstrating, contacting officials, and so on.16 Verba and Nie identified six categories of political activity, from “totally inactive” at one end to the “totally active” at the other, with four gradations in between. Almost without exception, however political participation was defined, socioeconomic status was not only a significant predictor in a statistical sense, but the differences across classes were large.17 Among the totally inactive (the lowest category), people were almost six times as likely to be from the bottom third in socioeconomic status as from the top third; among the totally active (the highest category), more than four times as many were from the top third as from the bottom third. In between the extremes of political participation, the trends were unbroken and smooth: The higher the level of participation, the more likely the person was from a high-status background; the lower the level of participation, the more likely the person was from a low-status background.

Voting and Education

What is it about socioeconomic status that leads people to behave so differently? Verba and Nie did not present the breakdowns that permit an answer to that question.18 For that, we turn to another study, by Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone, that used the Current Population Surveys (CPS), conducted by the Census Bureau, to answer questions about voting.19 The authors asked which of the three components of socioeconomic status—education, income, and occupational status—primarily influences voting. The clear answer was education. A college education raised a person’s probability of voting almost 40 percentage points over what it would be if the person had less than five years of education, independent of income or occupational status; postgraduate education raised it even more. Even for people in the top income category (more than $75,000 per year in 1990 dollars) a college education added 34 percentage points to a person’s probability of voting. Occupational status per se had an even smaller overall effect than income, and it was ambiguous to boot. For example, with education held constant, sales and clerical workers voted at slightly higher rates than professionals or managers.

Educational attainment correlates not just with voting itself but with political knowledge, interest, and attitudes—in short, with political sophistication.20 Political sophistication, in turn, correlates with voting.21 Educated people read more about political issues, and they keep their television sets and radios tuned to the news and public issues programs more than do people with less education. They think about political issues at more abstract levels than do less educated people, and less in terms of concrete, personal benefit. They are more likely to disagree with statements like, “So many people vote in the national election that it doesn’t matter much to me whether I vote or not.” Or, “It isn’t so important to vote when you know your party doesn’t have a chance to win.”22 By disagreeing, educated people seem to be saying that they participate in an election even when the only payoff is a sense of having done the right thing, which we see as a mark of civility.

Other scholars who have examined this issue have come to the same conclusion that Wolfinger and Rosenstone demonstrated most decisively: it is predominantly education, rather than income or occupational status, that links voting and socioeconomic status.23 Some scholars go so far as to conclude that, aside from the major effect of education, voting and socioeconomic status have little to do with each other.24 This turns the standard theory on its head: Rather than explaining the correlation between education and voting as an effect of socioeconomic status, the evidence says that the correlation between socioeconomic status and voting would more properly be attributed to education.

Turning the explanation on its head may solve a puzzle that Verba and Nie noted.25 Having shown that political leaders respond to pressure from their constituencies, they wondered why the upper socioeconomic classes participated more in political matters, when those at the bottom were more dependent on the government to solve their problems. If the people who have the most to gain or lose participated the most, then the lower classes would vote more than the middle or upper. Why don’t they? The answer is that participation is less a matter of direct benefit than of civility in the sense we are using the word here, and civility is higher among more educated people than among less educated ones.26

Some of the more cynical dismissals of American political life are similarly answered. Poor and humble workers, it is sometimes argued, are disenfranchised whether they vote or not, because the government does the bidding of the rich and well placed. It is small wonder, then, that they do not vote, this argument continues. But the evidence shows it is not so much the poor and humble who fail to vote; it is the uneducated. It may be easy to believe that the poor are disenfranchised, but it is less obvious why it should be the uneducated (poor or not). What is the cynic to make of the fact that an underpaid but well-educated shop clerk is more likely to vote than a less educated, rich businessman?

Voting and Cognitive Ability

The link between education and voting is clear. Does it really signify a link between cognitive ability and voting? There is an indirect argument that says yes, described in the notes,27 but we have been able to find only two studies that tackle the question directly.

The first did not have an actual measure of IQ, only ratings of intelligence by interviewers, based on their impressions after some training. This is a legitimate procedure—rated intelligence is known to correlate with tested intelligence—but the results must be treated as approximate. With that in mind, a multivariate analysis of a national sample in the American National Election study in 1976 showed that, of all the variables, by far the most significant in determining a person’s political sophistication were rated intelligence and expressed interest. Interest, however, was itself most tellingly affected by intelligence.28 The more familiar independent variables—education, income, occupational status, exposure to the media, parental interest in politics—had small or no effects, after rated intelligence was taken into account.

The one study of political involvement that included a test of intelligence was conducted in the San Francisco area in the 1970s. The intelligence test was a truncated one, based on a dozen vocabulary items.29 About 150 people were interviewed in depth and assessed on political sophistication, which is known to correlate with political participation.30 The usual background variables—income and education, for example—were also obtained. Educational attainment was, as expected, correlated with the test score. But even this rudimentary intelligence test score predicted political sophistication as well as education did. To Russell Neuman, the study’s author, “the evidence supports the idea of an independent cognitive-ability effect” as part of the proved link between socioeconomic status and political participation.31

We do not imagine that we have told the entire story of political participation. Age, sex, and ethnic identity are among the individual factors that we have omitted but that political scientists routinely examine against the background of voting laws, regional variations, historical events, and the general political climate of the country. In various periods and to varying degrees, these other factors have been shown to be associated with either the sheer level of political involvement or its character. Older people, for example, are more likely to vote than younger people, up to the age at which the debilities of age intervene; women in the past participated less than men, but the gap has narrowed to the vanishing point (especially for educated men and women); different ethnic groups resonate to different political causes.32

Our focus on education and intelligence similarly gives insufficient attention to other personal traits that influence political participation.33 People vary in their sense of civic duty and in the strength of their party affiliations, apart from their educational or intellectual level; their personal values color their political allegiances and how intensely they are felt. Their personalities are expressed not just in personal life but also in their political actions (or inactions).

The bottom line, then, is not that political participation is simple to describe but that, despite its complexity, so narrow a range of individual factors carries so large a burden of explanation. For example, the zero-order correlations between intelligence and the fourteen political dimensions in the study of high school students described above ranged from .01 to .53, with an average of .22; the average correlation with the youngsters’ socioeconomic background was .09.34 For the sentiment of civic duty—the closest approximation to civility in this particular set of dimensions—the correlation with intelligence was .4. As we cautioned above, this may be an overestimate, but perhaps not by much: The zero-order correlation between scores on a brief vocabulary test and the political sophistication of a sample of adults was .33.35 The coefficients for rated intelligence in a multivariate analysis of political sophistication were more than twice as large as for any of the other variables examined, which included education, occupation, age, and parental interest in politics.

The coherence of the evidence linking IQ and political participation as a whole cannot be neglected. The continuity of the relationship over the life span gives it a plausibility that no single study can command. The other chapters in Part II have shown that cognitive ability often accounts for the importance of socioeconomic class and underlies much of the variation that is usually attributed to education. It appears that the same holds for political participation.


The NLSY does not permit us to extend this discussion directly. None of the questions in the study asks about political participation or knowledge. But as we draw to the close of this long sequence of chapters about IQ and social behavior, we may use the NLSY to take another tack.

For many years, “middle-class values” has been a topic of debate in American public life. Many academic intellectuals hold middle-class values in contempt. They have a better reputation among the public at large, however, where they are seen—rightly, in our view—as ways of behaving that produce social cohesion and order. To use the language of this chapter, middle-class values are related to civility.

Throughout Part II, we have been examining departures from middle-class values: adolescents’ dropping out of school, babies born out of wedlock, men dropping out of the labor force or ending up in jail, women going on welfare. Let us now look at the glass as half full instead of half empty, concentrating on the people who are doing everything right by conventional standards. And so, to conclude Part II, we present the Middle Class Values (MCV) Index. It has scores of “Yes” and “No.” A man in the NLSY got a “Yes” if by 1990 he had obtained a high school degree (or more), been in the labor force throughout 1989, never been interviewed in jail, and was still married to his first wife. A woman in the NLSY got a “Yes” if she had obtained a high school degree, had never given birth to a baby out of wedlock, had never been interviewed in jail, and was still married to her first husband. People who failed any one of the conditions were scored “No.” Never-married people who met all the other conditions except the marital one were excluded from the analysis. We also excluded men who were not eligible for the labor force in 1989 or 1990 because they were physically unable to work or in school.

Note that the index does not demand economic success. A man can earn a “Yes” despite being unemployed if he stays in the labor force. A woman can be on welfare and still earn a “Yes” if she bore her children within marriage. Men and women alike can have incomes below the poverty line and still qualify. We do not require that the couple have children or that the wife forgo a career. The purpose of the MCV Index is to identify among the NLSY population, in their young adulthood when the index was scored, those people who are getting on with their lives in ways that fit the middle-class stereotype: They stuck with school, got married, the man is working or trying to work, the woman has confined her childbearing to marriage, and there is no criminal record (as far as we can tell).

What does this have to do with civility? We propose that even though many others in the sample who did not score “Yes” are also fine citizens, it is this population that forms the spine of the typical American community, filling the seats at the PTA meetings and the pews at church, organizing the Rotary Club fund-raiser, coaching the Little League team, or circulating a petition to put a stop light at a dangerous intersection—and shoveling sidewalks and returning lost wallets. What might IQ have to do with qualifying for this group? As the table shows, about half of the sample earned “Yes” scores. They are markedly concentrated among the brighter people, with progressively smaller proportions on down through the cognitive’classes, to an extremely small 16 percent of the Class Vs qualifying.

Whites and the Middle-Class Values Index

Congnitive Class

Percentage Who Scored “Yes” as of 1990

I Very bright


II Bright


III Normal


IV Dull


V Very Dull




Furthermore, as in so many other analyses throughout Part II, cognitive ability, independent of socioeconomic background, has an important causal role to play. Below is the final version of the graphic you have seen so often.

Cognitive Ability and the Middle Class Values Index


Note: For computing the plot, age and either SES (for the black curve) or IQ (for the gray curve) were set at their mean values.

As intuition might suggest, “upbringing” in the form of socioeconomic background makes a significant difference. But for the NLSY sample, it was not as significant as intelligence. Even when we conduct our usual analyses with the education subsamples—thereby guaranteeing that everyone meets one of the criteria (finishing high school)—a significant independent role for IQ remains. Its magnitude is diminished for the high school sample but not, curiously, for the college sample. The independent role of socioeconomic background becomes insignificant in these analyses and, in the case of the high-school-only sample, goes the “wrong” way after cognitive ability is taken into account.

Much as we have enjoyed preparing the Middle Class Values Index, we do not intend it to become a new social science benchmark. Its modest goals are to provide a vantage point on correlates of civility in a population of young adults and then to serve as a reminder that the old-fashioned virtues represented through the index are associated with intelligence.


Cognitive ability is a raw material for civility, not the thing itself Suppose that the task facing a citizen is to vote on an initiative proposing some environmental policy involving (as environmental issues usually do) complex and subtle trade-offs between costs and benefits. Above-average intelligence means that a person is likely to be better read and better able to think through (in a purely technical sense) those tradeoffs. On the average, smarter people are more able to understand points of view other than their own. But beyond these contributions of intelligence to citizenship, high intelligence also seems to be associated with an interest in issues of civil concern. It is associated, perhaps surprisingly to some, with the behaviors that we identify with middle-class values.

We should emphasize that vast quantities of this raw material called intelligence are not needed for many of the most fundamental forms of civility and moral behavior. All of us might well pause at this point to think of the abundant examples of smart people who have been conspicuously uncivil. Yet these qualifications notwithstanding, the statistical tendencies remain. A smarter population is more likely to be, and more capable of being made into, a civil citizenry. For a nation predicated on a high level of individual autonomy, this is a fact worth knowing.