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Emotional intelligence, cognitive ability may predict support for free speech

Why are some people more likely to support free speech than others? A new study reveals that high cognitive ability and emotional intelligence predict greater support for free speech.
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Nearly every American agrees that “protecting free speech is an important part of American democracy.” However, this near-universal support for an abstract “right to free speech” decreases considerably when people are asked to consider concrete examples of controversial and unpopular speech. 

For instance, 77% of people agree that “having different points of view, including those that are ‘bad’ or offensive to some, promotes healthy debate in a society.” Agreement drops to 57% when asked if “students should be able to express their opinions about school employees on social media without worrying about being punished.” And only 31% think that “people should be allowed to burn an American flag as a political statement.”

Why do some people stand firmly behind their commitment to free speech while others falter? Are all people prone to censoring ideas that are contrary to their own, or do some people possess qualities that make them more likely to defend speech they abhor? 

Recent studies point to the latter, suggesting that support for free speech is linked to individual psychological characteristics. Individuals higher in cognitive ability, regardless of their political ideology, showed greater support for freedom of speech.

Principled support for free speech is rooted in the idea that all human beings are fallible.

Such consistent support for free speech comes despite the fact that individuals with greater cognitive ability – regardless of whether they were liberal or conservative – tended to dislike politically conservative groups as compared to liberal ones, a result which replicates previous findings.

Furthermore, the study finds that intellectual humility and emotional intelligence, which are associated with cognitive ability, tended to drive support for free speech.

Individual differences from a social-psychology perspective

From a psychological perspective, individuals can possess more or less of a “trait,” which is a relatively stable, enduring characteristic that predicts how individuals think, feel, and behave. Traits are usually measured on an ordinal scale (e.g., “Clearly describes my feelings,” “Mostly describes my feelings,” “Mostly does not describe my feelings,” “Clearly does not describe my feelings”). Response options are then assigned a numerical value. This allows an individual’s “amount” of a trait to be estimated, usually by summing or averaging all of the numeric values. 

This estimate should not be considered fixed, and can be better thought of as a rough estimate of how much of a trait a person typically possesses. Additionally, it can fluctuate in response to external factors. For instance, making people aware of their own fallibility has been shown to increase intellectual humility. Implementing mastery-oriented teaching practices also has this effect. 

Individual differences in support for freedom of speech

Not all traits however, are equally responsive to external factors. Cognitive ability concerns “the skills involved in performing the tasks associated with perception, learning, memory, understanding, awareness, reasoning, judgment, intuition, and language.” In essence, it refers to a person’s general intelligence and is considered fairly stable

So why exactly do people with higher cognitive ability tend to support free speech?

One intriguing possibility is that people with high cognitive ability also often exhibit greater intellectual humility. At its core, intellectual humility refers to whether a person is open to the idea that they might be wrong, and research has demonstrated that the relationship between cognitive ability and support for free speech is amplified if an individual also possesses more intellectual humility. 

Although it would seem that some people are predisposed to support free speech, these attitudes are hardly fixed or predetermined by cognitive ability.

The most recent research extends these findings. Those higher in cognitive ability and emotional intelligence –– the ability to recognize emotions in oneself and others, and to use this emotional information to productively and positively guide one’s actions –– were more supportive of freedom of speech and less concerned with appearing "politically correct," which the researchers define as “using language (or behavior) to seem sensitive to others’ feelings, especially those others who seem socially disadvantaged.” The researchers suggest that those high in emotional intelligence favor free speech because the former correlates positively with psychological reactance –– the tendency for people to experience anxiety or distress when they perceive their freedom is threatened.

According to reactance theory, “when people feel coerced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating an increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the behavior opposite to that desired.” For instance, a college student high in emotional intelligence, and therefore likely to demonstrate psychological reactance, might be expected to oppose an attempt by college administrators to ban a “harmful” word or phrase, seeing it as a restriction on their freedom. However, among those with higher cognitive ability and emotional intelligence who also had higher levels of empathy, support for free speech was slightly reduced while concern for being politically correct was slightly higher.

A principled support for freedom of speech

The authors conclude that high scorers on cognitive ability and emotional intelligence react aversively to “the general idea of external control and censure of what people can say and how they say it.” They also suggest that such individuals possess a unique perspective on the negative consequences of speech restrictions, and that these individuals are more likely to be concerned with how speech restrictions can backfire and be used to suppress the expression of disadvantaged or unpopular groups in society. 

In other words, principled support for free speech is not merely a cloak for prejudicial attitudes towards disadvantaged groups, as some researchers have claimed. 

More likely, principled support for free speech is rooted in the idea that all human beings are fallible. Therefore, we should be intellectually humble and open to the ideas of others, for we ourselves might be wrong. This suggests that individuals high in cognitive ability and emotional intelligence may be principled defenders of free speech, tolerating even the speech they abhor. They would likely agree with John Stuart Mill, who wrote: 

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Although it would seem that some people are predisposed to support free speech, these attitudes are hardly fixed or predetermined by cognitive ability –– it’s not just “smart” people who support free speech! Cognitive ability is fairly stable throughout a person’s life, but traits associated with cognitive ability that drive support for free speech, like intellectual humility and emotional intelligence, are less rigid.

Understanding the psychological mechanisms that underlie support for free speech can guide us in developing effective strategies for promoting freedom of expression. Based on these findings, we might find success in crafting initiatives that increase more malleable traits like intellectual humility and emotional intelligence among those who do not intrinsically possess these traits. 

As always, greater insight about our psychology enhances our mission to defend individual liberty.

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