HBD: If You’re So Smart. . .


Not so much eventually, but usually instantly, discussions of HBD will cross the topic of intelligence or IQ. Within these discussions it does not take long before someone asks a variation of “if you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” As a smart (cough) reader, I am sure you will understand that it just ain’t that simple.

This is one of a series where I discuss issues and elements of what is referred to as HBD. Similar to my Random Thoughts series these posts will be more personal and less scholarly. If you want deeply footnoted reference work, please look elsewhere. Disclaimer aside, I do hope to give a passable overview of the subject.

The “ain’t rich” question may seem fair, after all most HBD commentators are relatively unknown bloggers, and certainly lack the fame and fortune of dumb* sports or rock stars (to use a common example). After all, if intelligence were so important, how is it that those guys are pulling chicks and making coin, not writing unread blogs? The question would be fair if the claim were that intelligence is the only thing. However, the claim is not that intelligence is the only thing, but that it is an important thing.

I cannot think of any endeavor where less intelligence would be an advantage. While some activities place lower cognitive demands, few would benefit by a having a dumber participant. This is the cognitive equivalent of the amusement park “you must be this tall to take the ride” notice.

Most serious discussions of HBD issues are clear that various traits allow for success in different endeavors. It is the distribution of these traits amongst groups, and resultant outcomes, that form much of HBD discussion. Intelligence is a trait common to success in just about any endeavor, so will be the trait that garners most attention.

A simple model for success in any particular arena might look something like R = a + b + c + d, where:
R = Results: some measure of a successful outcome.
a = Affability: charm, charisma, willingness and ability to participate in social events.
b = Brains: some measure of general intelligence.
c = Conscientiousness: keep promises, willingness and ability to practice, play by the rules.
d = Distinctive traits: unique traits that pertain to a particular area. Examples might be: manual dexterity and non-reactive demeanor for a surgeon, excellent eyesight for a fighter pilot.

Depending on the endeavor, not all of these separate traits have positive return: A highly social accountant might find the time working the books dull, a very conscientious artist might lack the creative flair need for great work (the ability to break at least some rules).

Besides the return to certain traits, any endeavor will have a minimum requirement to ensure success. No matter how intelligent a man is, if he suffers from a hand tremor he is not likely to be a good surgeon. An asocial salesman will be unlikely to meet his targets. No matter how honest, decent, and conscientious a man, he needs a certain level of numeracy to succeed at accounting.

Higher intelligence is always of benefit, but sometimes it is not enough. If you lack charisma, you are less likely to be a rock star. If you lack strength, speed and agility, you are less likely to be a sports star. No matter how well you did at medical school, if you have palsy, you are less likely to make a brain surgeon. To succeed in many areas of business you need a certain level of conscientiousness (creative thinking is fine, but you have to earn trust as well). High intelligence does not guarantee success, but low intelligence may put you out of the game.

Intelligence forms a focus for so much discussion because we can measure it (in a way that cannot do for charisma or conscientiousness), and because low levels can exclude the person in a way that other traits do not. The palsied neurosurgeon can become a neuroscientist, designing procedures but leaving the cutting to others. The uncharismatic singer can become a songwriter or producer, leaving the performing to others. The unintelligent may find it hard to make up for their lack with other traits. If an accountant cannot add numbers, nobody will care how honest he is. A charismatic salesman is no good if he cannot manage orders and other paperwork. The reason that senior jobs (e.g., CEO) do not force aptitude tests is because the intangible assets (affability or conscientiousness) now have a measure in the form of history. No corporation would choose a CEO by IQ test but I would doubt there are many dumb CEOs. It is not that intelligence does not matter, merely that it has already been selected for in a twenty-year career history.

Intelligence is not everything; indeed intelligence absent character may give us an evil villain. Intelligence cannot solve every problem (the palsied surgeon or shy rock singer), but it may prevent some. Like intelligence, negative traits are shared evenly across the population. There is no law that says if you lose IQ points you gain charisma points; dumb jock is not necessarily a scientific fact. Across a wide range of measures, increased intelligence can be linked to better outcomes. Like good health, more is better. If there is a point to considering intelligence it is this: a society should be a wary of creating difficulties for the less intelligent in the same way it would seek to avoid causing difficulties for the less able bodied.


*Dumb Jock/Rock stars?
Even in sports and music, I suspect there is a link between intelligence and career longevity. Many sports do place cognitive demands on players: remembering plays, weighing up tactics and strategies, visio-spatial mapping of targets, etc. While the physical stresses of competitive sport place a limit on professional longevity, smarter players are likely to handle the active and post career phases better.

I suspect that the long running rock stars are also smarter than average. Mick Jagger attended the London School of Economics (while he may not have graduated I believe he received good results on his school exams). Sting was a schoolteacher, and while I know it is popular to denigrate their smarts, it still implies completion of a college level course. I am not sure about Freddie Mercury, but Queen guitarist Brian May is now a PhD (he was a.b.d – all but dissertation – for most of the group’s life, but was allowed to finish his coursework and write his thesis in 2007). [back]

Not like the rest.
Because smart(er) people tend to associate with smart(er) people, intelligence can become like water to a fish; it is something you take for granted. For many professionals, the “not so bright” colleague might have merely an average IQ. Someone said of the wealthy that they are like us, only different. The same could be said for the intelligent.

Cognitive “Noblesse oblige?”
Some might detect in my writings a form of noblesse oblige towards the less intelligent, as if I were attempting to help mere mortals who lack my brilliance. For cognitive matters I would feel myself closer to a middle class leftie: although cognitively comfortably off I am not so removed from cognitive poverty to lack empathy. While noblesse oblige may not have gone entirely out of fashion for the financial elite, it has certainly seems out of fashion for the cognitive elite (even if many are the same individuals).


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