Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ
The preoccupation with intelligence undermines personal agency.
Like many people, I was impressed upon first learning about the power of IQ to predict important social outcomes.
The psychologist Arthur Jensen’s definition of intelligence:
“Assimilation of experience (i.e., learning) into cognitive structures which organize what has been learned in ways that subsequently permit quick and adequate retrieval and broad transfer of the learning in new relevant situations. Stated in simplest terms…the process of understanding what one has learned. It is ‘getting the idea,’ ‘catching on,’ having the ‘Aha!’ experience that may accompany or follow experiencing or learning something, and the relating of new learning to past learning and vice versa.”
Very few psychology students learn about the importance of IQ. In intro psych, students often read a chapter in which IQ is seemingly placed on equal empirical footing as “multiple intelligences” theory (which doesn’t predict anything in the real world above and beyond IQ). The only class I took in which IQ was discussed as important without any prefatory remarks about how it is biased etc. was in a seminar on autism (whereupon I was surprised to learn that people with autism tend to have lower than average intelligence).
As a student, I read papers and books about intelligence, intrigued by how little attention was paid to it in my courses, despite it being the most important and robust finding in all of psychology. I recall a second-year graduate student who asked me what kind of courses undergrads would like to see available.
I replied, “There are no courses on intelligence, and isn’t it the most robust concept in psychology?”
He stared blankly at the wall behind me for a few seconds. Then said, “Do you think students would be interested in a class on stereotypes?”
At Yale? I thought as I picked up my backpack. “Most definitely,” I replied.
People often treat intelligence, a relatively immutable trait, as the sole predictive variable in determining life outcomes. And then use it as an instrument to advance their favored agendas.
People on the right and, increasingly, on the left, generally accept the importance of IQ. The right is more open about it. Those on the left are often coy in public, concealing their statements underneath an avalanche of hedges—but in private, without the fear of negative social judgment, most will acknowledge that intelligence matters a lot for achievement.
Recently, two prominent books discussing the importance of intelligence have been written by authors who are broadly thought to be on the political left: The Cult of Smart and The Genetic Lottery.
That intelligence is largely (though not entirely) influenced by genes is somehow simultaneously taboo and widely accepted. Perhaps an example of Paul Graham’s observation that “the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That's where you'll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.” Still, the publication and relative absence of anger about the two aforementioned books suggests that were it not for fear of being mobbed by lunatics, people would be more forthcoming about their acceptance of this psychological concept.
The importance and fixity of intelligence are now used by both the political right and left in different ways. For many on the left, it confirms that their view that unfairness is pervasive and thus they have a strong argument in favor of large-scale redistribution. You didn’t earn the genes that made you smart, thus whatever earnings you’ve obtained due to your innate abilities are due to luck. For many on the right, the durability of intelligence confirms their view that differences between people exist and there isn’t much you can do about it. Thus society should accept that things are unfair and, e.g., limit the number of immigrants who, on average, extract more resources than they contribute.
Intelligence is important, but it’s far from the only thing that matters for living a decent life. A meta-analysis of 23 studies found that at the individual level, intelligence has no relationship with happiness. Knowing the IQ of two random people in the same country tells you nothing about whether one is happier than the other. 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).
The psychologist and intelligence researcher Russell T. Warne points out:
“Although below-average intelligence makes life more difficult for a person, other traits or life circumstances can compensate for having a lower IQ. Having a supportive family, higher socioeconomic status, motivation, conscientiousness, cultural influences that discourage unfavorable behaviors, determination, and many other characteristics can compensate for a. lower level of intelligence. Nobody is a prisoner of their IQ.”
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.
As the Ogilvy Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland has written:
“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.”
Society frets about intelligence because the people who shape and establish policy tend to be nerds who are good at school and good at tests. So they overlook other qualities that lead to a decent life. Beyond basic shelter, care and nutrition, interventions to raise IQ have shown modest results at best. Fortunately, intelligence is far from the only thing that matters.
If you live in a developed country, studies indicate that there is a simple and highly effective formula for avoiding poverty:
1. Finish high school.
2. Get a full-time job once you finish school.
3. Get married before you have children.
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.
It is true that people with lower cognitive ability tend to show less foresight and effective self-direction. Thus for the majority of people who are not endowed with large amounts of cognitive and economic capital, it is especially important to maintain strong, clear, widely accepted norms of behavior. These can help guide and channel ordinary people into the constructive social roles of work and marriage.
Life is undeniably harder for the less talented. Still, all you have to do to avoid poverty is stick to a few simple steps. People with average or below-average academic ability are the most likely to benefit from these kind of straightforward rules and clear guidance. This helps them navigate the challenges they face as they experience life’s complexities. Norms and rules are especially helpful in an environment of abundance, with quick and easy access to junk food, drugs, casual sex, online porn, and other avenues to self-sabotaging behavior.
The overemphasis on the limits imposed by the relative immutability of intelligence is misguided. The majority of your human ancestors were dumber than you. Yet they endured unimaginable hardships. Social norms were a major reason for this—tried and true patterns of behavior that reliably lead, on average, to a decent life.
Today, honesty, restraint, reliability, integrity, thrift, and decency are behaviors that are good for both individuals and their communities. And nearly everyone is capable of them.
Stable two-parent families, too, are something people are capable of forming. But in a society in which there are no clear norms, it is unsurprising that such families are prevalent among the affluent and educated, but not among the poor and working class.
In a society in which decent norms have been undermined (primarily by the luxury belief class who themselves have benefited from such norms), prosperous and smart people are better equipped to navigate difficult questions such as “What behaviors will lead to happiness and fulfillment?” And “What family structure will ensure that my children have the best possible life?”
In the absence of powerful norms and their associated status incentives, high-IQ people still manage to adhere to habits associated with personal and professional success. If they are mired in severely dysfunctional and deprived situations (like I was), then it can take a bit longer for them re-direct onto their statistically likely trajectory (though having a decent life in adulthood does not compensate for their earlier experiences of dysfunction and deprivation).
Yes, it is true that ordinary people already know that honesty, marriage, etc. are good for themselves and their kids. But for most people, including those who are smart, knowledge isn’t enough.
The psychologist Jessica Tracy has written:
“We humans, like all animals, do not do things that are good for us just because we know they are good for us…Knowledge alone has no motivational power. We are motivated not predominantly by knowledge but by emotions…Emotions like fear and anxiety compel us to behave in ways that knowledge, on its own, cannot…It’s the emotion that motivates us to do all the things we do to become the kind of person we want to be.”
Everyone knows cigarettes are bad for them. People still smoke.
Everyone knows vegetables are good for them. People still choose the fries instead of the side salad.
Everyone knows marriage and stable two-parent families are better for children. Knowledge isn’t enough to motivate behavior.
Norms, and the associated feelings for upholding them (pride, enhanced self-esteem, gratification, etc.) and the feelings for failing to meet them (guilt, shame, anxiety, etc.) are far stronger motivators of behavior than mere knowledge.
People have known for a long time that smoking is bad for them. But knowledge isn’t what caused the percentage of people who smoke to drop by half since the 1980s (despite tobacco use being highly heritable at 60-80%). No, what caused the decline was stigmatizing tobacco and shaming smokers. Damaging their status worked, not giving smokers more knowledge.
People have known for a long time that obesity is bad for them. Yet the percentage of people who are obese has tripled since the 1980s (despite obesity being highly heritable at 40-70%). It is a near certainty that the rise of cheap and abundant junk food is in part responsible for this. However, it is likely that the reduction in stigma and shame also accounts for the rise in obesity, over and above the effects of the availability of unhealthy foods.
In their book Talent, Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross point out:
“Personality and conscientiousness matter most at the bottom of the distribution…in the bottom tenth of earners, non-cognitive skills—which include, for instance, features of personality—matters two and a half to four times more than do cognitive skills.”
In other words, hard work is a stronger predictor of earnings for unskilled workers than for skilled workers, suggesting that cultivating a work ethic may in some cases be more important than trying to boost academic ability.
Intelligence is not easily manipulable. If you confer status on highly intelligent people, you probably won’t raise the number of people who are smarter (though giving every child an IQ test raises the number of nonwhite and poor kids who enter gifted programs, perhaps because these kids are overlooked by their teachers who have a certain image in mind of what a “gifted” student is supposed to look like).
Certain individual traits respond to incentives more than others. The admiration and respect of others is a powerful incentive. Status is a fundamental human motive, and people will often work just as hard to attain status as they would other critical resources. Many people go on diets to be more attractive. They forego food (a desirable material resource) for status (a desirable immaterial resource). This is also true for time, sleep, bodily integrity (people will take life-threatening physical risks to be seen as cool), and so on. Status is a potent incentive.
If you confer status on work ethic and industriousness, you can actually raise the number of people who work hard—even if it goes against their natural habits, they will counteract their inclinations. If instead you undercut the value of hard work by saying it’s a sucker’s game, or that hard work is a scam, then hard work becomes a lower status activity, and people can signal status by showing how they are “aware” of the game and thus cut corners as much as possible.
Members of the cultural elite wield the most influence in determining which individuals we celebrate, yet seldom do they publicly honor those who adhere to the qualities of decency, sacrifice, temperance, and so on. Many of the most famous people today are known for defying such virtues.
People respond to incentives. Status is an incentive.
And while intelligence is relatively unresponsive to status, people will change their behaviors in exchange for the approval and validation of others. One way to have a decent society is to make sure we confer status on functional and healthy behaviors. Behaviors that nearly anyone can accomplish regardless of their underlying abilities or dispositions.
A guy with a 90 IQ, who isn’t especially talented or conscientious or handsome already has the deck stacked against him. But if the leaders and the most influential members of his society believe and promote the message that such a person is beyond hope, that such people should just be resigned to being ill-equipped to navigate a complex economy, then he will be more likely to resign himself to taking his UBI and withdrawing from society, or cause trouble within it. If the message, though, is that even if people don’t have much control over their cognitive ability, they do exert control over their behavior and choices (and confer status on good ones), then they will behave differently. They’ll be more likely to find ways to be useful to their loved ones and community.
There has been some criticism of the “success sequence,” notably, the fear that widespread knowledge of it will lead more people to blame people for being poor.
But it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that some people are more responsible for their own economic misfortunes than others.
Consider this hypothetical, borrowed from the economist Bryan Caplan.
Imagine that the success sequence found that people could only reliably avoid poverty by earning a Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, working 80 hours a week, and practicing lifelong celibacy.
How should you react? Probably by saying something like, “If that’s the only way to avoid being poor, then we shouldn’t blame people for their own poverty, because those steps are impossible to complete for just about everyone.”
In other words, you shouldn’t blame people for problems they have no reasonable way to avoid. You shouldn’t hold them responsible if the solution is impossible or requires ceaseless abject misery—as the math Ph.D./workaholic/eternal sexlessness sequence would be for nearly everybody.
But people can be held accountable for problems they have a reasonable way to avoid. If you are able-bodied and reasonably competent, then it is your responsibility if you are poor and live a chaotic life. You can be blamed if you have children despite knowing that they too will experience dysfunction and misery.
The success sequence is not difficult to complete.
Graduating high school is easy. American high schools have low standards, and teachers don’t want to fail anyone. Almost any student who puts in a little effort will graduate. I did zero homework and regularly ditched my classes yet still managed to graduate.
In ninth grade, I spilled a Powerade on my desk and used my biology homework to mop it up. Then I gently placed the sheet, dripping in red liquid, in the teacher's submission pile to be graded. The next day the paper had dried into a pinkish color. I got a C-. American teachers, especially in low-income schools, do just about all they can to avoid failing a kid. Even if he all but dares them to do so.
The steps of the success sequence are within reach for the vast majority of people.
When we were both nineteen, one of my high school friends (raised by his grandmother because his mom was addicted to drugs and his dad was in prison) worked ten hours a week at Burger King. Our other friends and I mocked him endlessly for having to wear a visor at work.
He’d also make fun of me, reminding me that only three years prior, I had to wear an apron to work in my dishwashing job.
We were at Applebee’s one day. I saw a sign out front that said they were looking for full-time servers. I told my friend to ask for an application. He replied in a mocking tone, “You ask for an application.” I got up to use the restroom and picked up an application on the way back. Right there in the restaurant we filled out the application for him together.
They hired him. When he was scheduled to start his first day at this full-time job, he simply didn’t show up. He didn’t feel like it. Can he be blamed? Yes.
Sometimes when I tell this story, people respond by saying, “That’s understandable. Working at Applebee’s doesn’t sound enjoyable.” And they’re right. But much of adult life isn’t enjoyable—which these people understand. Studying for years to get a PhD or working endless hours at a consultancy isn’t fun, either. These people make excuses for others that they would never make for themselves or those close to them. The upper middle class has figured out, on their own, that hard work is valuable. They don’t need this message continually reinforced. Most others do. But instead of exalting the importance of effort, affluent people work hard (and humblebrag about how busy they are) and then publicly say effort is pointless or unenjoyable.
Not long after this, my friend got drunk and high and wrecked his motorcycle. A girl was on the back when they crashed. He incurred some minor scrapes, but she cracked her skull and ended up in a coma. It’s not impossible to suggest that if my friend had a full-time job, this might not have happened. It’s not impossible to suggest that if full-time employment was more culturally exalted than doing drugs and speeding on a motorcycle, then maybe things would have turned out differently. That incident was my friend’s third DUI, and he was sentenced to eighteen months in San Quentin State Prison.
As for the final step in the sequence (getting married before having children), cheap, effective contraception is widely available. People can easily avoid having children before they are ready to support them.
The realization that the sequence is so simple to follow is likely the main reason why talking about the success sequence upsets critics. These steps are easy enough for practically any adult to understand and follow.
In developed countries, the steps for living a relatively prosperous life would be easier to follow if norms and guidelines were stronger. And if people were celebrated for following them. Especially by those who wield the most influence on culture and society. Today, though, we live in a defect-defect equilibrium where cynicism for decent standards of behavior is pervasive.
Regardless of your IQ, if you drop out of school, avoid work, and raise your kids in deprivation, you are responsible. Even if the luxury belief class (who has much to answer for) removed the guardrails that would've helped you avoid these decisions.
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I'm studying for a master's in public health, and we endlessly discuss the "social determinants of health" but never once has the success sequence been mentioned in any of my courses. Considering that poverty and educational attainment are key predictors of poor health, efforts at avoiding "blaming the victim" ensure that disadvantaged populations stay sicker than those with more privilege. What are we doing here?
Hallelujah. The guy (or gal) who picks up your garbage deserves at least as much respect as any other working member of society.