Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ, But IQ Still Matters

Interesting article by Rob Henderson, Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ.

Much of this article boils down to the argument that because some high-IQ people make worse life choices than low/average-IQ people, that somehow this can be enough to overcome the disadvantage of not being smart. Or that because of luck and or not succumbing to personal vices, IQ is not the sole determining criterion of success. It’s not wrong, but there will always be outliers. Just because the two distributions overlap (some smart people who earn little, some dull people who earn a lot) does not mean it’s not there.

And if you believe Richard Hanania, today the high IQ elites are more miserable than everybody else (yes, the elites are smarter than average—but often smart people use their intelligence to raise their own status rather than seek the truth).

So what? They are still better, and studies show no diminishing returns to wealth vs happiness (not peaking at $75k/year as commonly erroneously assumed). Sure, some smart people are unhappy, but the opioid epidemic and the overuse of antidepressants in America shows that plenty of average-IQ or dim-witted people are also suffering. It’s just that they don’t get as much media coverage, unlike celebrities who have depression and write books, go on TV, or give talks about it.

Some people are worried that as the economy becomes more complex, people with lower cognitive ability will be unable to find employment. This is misguided. In a free market economy, ability is a reliable predictor of educational and occupational success. But in a freewheeling system, randomness and unpredictability ensure that the link between intelligence and earnings is far from perfect.

In the aggregate, IQ is predictive of rank-ordered success for competitive, g-loaded activities. Just because it’s ‘far from perfect’ (whatever that means) does not mean it isn’t highly correlated. Randomness and serendipity does not get you good paying jobs in an era of automated resume screening, background checks, pre-employment tests, and credentialism, in which people with low or average IQs quickly get filtered out for high-status, high-paying positions. Maybe 30 years ago it was easier to bypass the filters by knowing the right people, but not as much today. Large companies are under intense pressure, legally and for fear of bad press, to not show favoritism or nepotism of any form (except for token diversity hires, that are only a small percentage of the headcount for a major company like Facebook anyway).

Being good at chess, like having a Grandmaster title, means having to compete against people who are also endowed with innate gifts for being good at chess, which may include IQ. You are not going to be competing against individuals who don’t have an aptitude for Chess; those people get weeded out early.

Although IQ is not destiny, it is fixed, as the author correctly points out. If you’re disagreeable, for example, you can make a deliberate effort at being more agreeable. The major problem with personality tests is that it’s easy (or trainable) to choose answers that signify having a desired personality trait, as Timothy Leary famously demonstrated by acing the personality test he also created in order to avoid jail time. But this does not work with IQ. You cannot ‘fake’ pattern recognition or recalling digits like you can fake agreeability.

“It is a never-mentioned, slightly embarrassing but nevertheless essential facet of free market capitalism that it does not care about reasons – in fact it will often reward lucky idiots. You can be a certifiable lunatic with an IQ of 80, but if you stumble blindly on an underserved market niche at the right moment, you will be handsomely rewarded. Equally you can have all the MBAs money can buy and, if you launch your genius idea a year too late (or too early), you will fail.”

Looking at the median is more useful or accurate than outliers. An IQ of 80 person who wins the lottery is just an extreme outlier. As discussed in the post The Myth of the Super-Successful ‘C’ Student, looking at outlier success stories does not change the fact that people with low IQs tend to not be that successful at life, if success is defined to mean quantifiable metrics of individual achievement.

Yeah, a janitor retired with $8 million after 80 years of saving and working…this makes for a touching story, but not exactly something that is reproduceable on a mass level (and what good is earning all that money when you have no time left to spent it, or you’re going to give it all away, anyway).

Fortunately, intelligence is far from the only thing that matters.

It matters for things which people find important. If you want to have a career playing Frisbee, then yeah IQ does not matter. A good paying job? IQ likely matters for getting past the screening stages. The oft-cited low correlation between IQ and job performance (such as by nntaleb) is conditional on making it past multiple screening gauntlets, composed of automated resume filtering (and or) a phone interview, and then interview process itself, which can be quite taxing. The first two are effectively IQ filters.

This has come to be known as “the success sequence.” Ninety-seven percent of people who follow these steps do not live in poverty. In contrast, seventy-six percent of those who do not adhere to any of these steps are poor.

Meeting these steps does not require a big brain. It doesn’t require high intelligence or academic achievement.

He left out the part about graduating from college. The college wage premium is the widest it’s ever been. Just stopping at high school is not good enough especially as far as home ownership is concerned. It’s hard enough for college grads, even in ‘STEM’, to afford homes– good luck with only a high school degree.

Again, IQ is not destiny. (I don’t think there too many people who dispute this.) But just because a correlation is imperfect does not mean doesn’t matter anyway. IQ is just an ingredient, that in and of itself does not mean much if other ingredients are missing, but still invaluable nonetheless.

1 comment

Comments are closed.