Intelligence Is Over-Rated

 

TRIGGER WARNING: There are parts of this essay in which I sound like an arrogant twit. This is not my intention, and I’m just trying to make a point. In order to make this point, I refer to my life as an example, because that’s what I’m familiar with. So read on if you like, and I hope you’ll see my point by the end, if you’ll bear with me. But if you roll your eyes and scroll on to other stuff in the third paragraph or so, I’ll understand…

I’ve done well in life, financially and professionally. I’ll skip the details so I don’t sound like an arrogant twit (Dang! Too late!), but we lost our hog farm when I was 16, and now, by the age of 50, I live in a fancy house on a golf course in Hilton Head. I’m very good at a very important job, and I help a lot of people. I also have three very successful kids. A family friend (“Bob”) complimented one of my kids recently, saying that we were all really, really smart. This immediately offended me, which seemed odd. It’s a nice thing to say. And I would have thanked him if I had been there. But I think that his view of intelligence is problematic. Common, but problematic.

My kids and I do have unusually high IQ’s – well above genius level. And I’m sure that helps, of course. So he was being complimentary, and he was not incorrect. But here is what bothered me about Bob’s compliment:

There are a lot of reasons for my success, such as:

  1. Ambition
    1. Unwillingness to accept “pretty good”
    2. Ability to ignore apparent limitations
    3. A vision of, and desire for, a better life
    4. A tendency to ignore naysayers
  2. Toughness
    1. Things go wrong. There are always setbacks, which can seem catastrophic at the time. Some people get back up and keep going, and others don’t.
  3. Creativity
    1. Finding better ways to do things
    2. Willingness to abandon more established ways of doing things
  4. Willingness to take responsibility for nearly everything
    1. If something goes wrong, I make it my problem, and I fix it, regardless of whose fault it is.
  5. Work habits
    1. The ability to work hard every day, even if no immediate reward is apparent
  6. Risk-taking
    1. Willingness to gamble, rather than falling back on the sure thing
    2. Figuring out which risks are worth taking, and which ones are not
  7. Ability to plan and estimate risk
    1. What exactly are my options here?
    2. How can I increase my odds of success with this plan?
    3. If something goes wrong, what is my plan B? Plan C? D? E? F?
  8. Ability to handle failure
    1. If you’re ambitious, and you take chances, you’re going to fail sometimes.
    2. Many people are crippled by these failures, or even by the possibility of failure.

I could obviously go on and on, and you could add more entries yourself that have helped you in your life, but my point is that of all these things that led to my success, I haven’t mentioned intelligence yet. If I kept going down this list far enough, I’m sure it would show up at some point, but it’s not near the top. And I suspect that this would be true of many successful people. At least, that’s how I see it.

But Bob thinks I’ve been successful because I’m smart. I was born with a high IQ, so of course, I make a lot of money. I think that’s just baloney, it’s destructive baloney. Bob can take comfort in this thought: “Dr. Bastiat makes more money than me, but that’s just because he was born with that magic brain of his. It’s not my fault.”

This deflection of responsibility is unhelpful for an individual, but when it is converted into government policy via affirmative action or whatever, it becomes enormously destructive for large numbers of people. Don’t tell little girls that men make more money than women, and that it’s not fair. Tell her that if she wants to earn more money than men, she needs to get to work. Don’t hold her back by telling her that her success, or lack thereof, is not in her control. What a horrible thing to do to somebody.

This brings up another problem I have with all this – the use of money to measure success in life. It’s a tempting metric, partially because it’s easy to measure. But there is a lot more to success in life besides money. Most of the people whose success I admire the most are not wealthy. But that’s another post…

Anyway, the efforts of leftists to view people as members of groups, rather than as individuals free to choose their own path, suppresses ambition and discourages risk-taking. You’re encouraging people to accept mediocrity. And many of them will.

But here’s the problem: Despite my protests to the contrary, it appears that IQ really is a good predictor of success in life. I rush to point out that this works better in large groups of people than it does in individuals, but if you group people by IQ, that is a good way to predict success in life among those groups. Modern psychology has come up with all sorts of ways to stratify those most likely to succeed, and nothing has ever worked as well as IQ. I don’t know enough about the data to make a good case for this, but Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, Stefan Molyneux, and many others have reached this conclusion after much research.

If they’re right, I find that extremely problematic.

I was very careful with this when I raised my kids. When they did well on a test, I NEVER said, “You’re so smart!” Instead I said, “Nice work!” I was more scared of laziness and complacency than I was of lack of ability. If they failed at something, I always suggested they either take a different approach or work harder, even if I knew that they just couldn’t do it. I NEVER told them that they couldn’t do ANYTHING, even though there were (of course) lots of things they just couldn’t do. Let them fail. But don’t let them not try. I’ve focused on this, relentlessly, since before they could walk. I wanted them to find their own limitations. I didn’t want anyone to tell them what those limitations were. They’d figure it out over time.

My three kids are very different from one another. But they are all tough. And now they’re happy, well-adjusted young adults doing quite well, thank you.

Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re a wimp. Wimps are never happy.

———-

Many leftists view this as a central contradiction in conservative thought. We promote individualism and personal responsibility. We dislike policies that try to produce equality of outcomes – we prefer equality of opportunity. Meanwhile, we acknowledge that not everyone has equal abilities. Thus, we acknowledge that some will succeed, and some will fail.

Leftists use this argument to suggest that conservatives are cold-hearted, uncaring, or even evil.

But conservatives, of course, disagree. You can’t have success without risking failure. You can’t win if you’re not willing to lose. Success is contagious. A rising tide lifts all boats. You can’t cure poverty by giving money to poor people. Poor people are not better off if rich people become less rich.

But all of these points require an honest effort to grasp them. It’s easier to just say, “Rich people are just the winners of life’s lottery. If you don’t succeed, it’s not your fault. Do you want a better life? Just vote for me, and I’ll take care of it.” That will win elections.

This argument is one of many at which conservatives are at a natural disadvantage, even if they are right.

So when Bob says that I succeed simply because I won the IQ lottery at birth, I bristle at this apparent compliment. Part of my discomfort rises from the fact that he may have a point. But even if that point is partially true, I think we should actively ignore it. You can’t control your natural gifts, but you can control your effort and a lot of other things. Worry about what you can control. And forget the rest. Are Jordan Peterson et al correct about the importance of IQ? Maybe, but who cares? Screw it. Get to work.

So I suggest that we ignore natural ability – start with the presumption that everyone is equal. Especially in matters of public policy. By emphasizing IQ etc, we de-emphasize individual decision making, ambition, risk-taking, and so on. And that’s what matters. Natural ability is just not as important as we make it out to be.

Or is it? What do you think?

———-

NOTE: Again, I apologize for sounding arrogant in this essay. I almost didn’t post it because of this. Those of you who know me know that this is not my style.

I also hesitated to use myself as an example, because I’m inviting personal attacks, which miss the point of the essay.

But without explaining why Bob’s compliment offended me, and without explaining why I think intelligence is not the primary determinant of my success, this essay made very little sense. So thank you for bearing with me.

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There are 124 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor

    Intelligence isn’t everything. Neither is physical strength or natural beauty. But they’re prized everywhere and probably always will be. All of them can be wasted on jerks. 

    • #1
    • June 2, 2019, at 12:56 PM PDT
    • 18 likes
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I fit most of your criteria, Dr. B. But I’m not a genius. I’m quite sure. I hesitate because I still feel the bite of my seventh-grade teacher allowing students to badger him into reading off the names of those who had scores over 100 after we took an IQ test. I don’t think he read all the names. And he didn’t read mine.

    Still, I did well in school, mainly because I worked hard. I did have to crack the books to get good grades. And I paid attention to what I did well: languages, writing, rational thinking, teaching. And I was stubborn. And persistent. As you say in your list, all those things matter a lot. If you don’t have other strengths besides a genius IQ, life will be hard. Fortunately I had a lot of things going for me.

    Still, I wish he’d read off my name . . .

    • #2
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:03 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Amy Schley Moderator

    Amen. 

    I’d add that when you do have a high IQ, the expectation that smarts = success can become its own terrible trap. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in a school that understands the need to challenge smart kids and is able to do so, you end up learning how to skate by without applying yourself until you hit the educational equivalent of the Peter Principle — and then you have no idea how to cope with failure and the need to work hard. And once the fallout of that failure hits, then you hear a constant refrain of “but you’re so smart; why aren’t you successful?” and feel so miserable you stop bothering to try.

    IQ is like money: a certain base amount is necessary to avoid the problems caused by a lack of it, but the diminishing returns of each additional bit kick in well before you even hit the median.

    • #3
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:04 PM PDT
    • 15 likes
  4. Bob Thompson Member

    It’s a package. Looks as if you got most all of it.

    • #4
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:05 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Dr. Bastiat: Ambition

    1. Unwillingness to accept “pretty good”

    A pretty narrow definition of ambition. That’s an ethical definition, but there are plenty of people weak on ethics who are ambitious and are willing to dishonestly game the system to get ahead. Note the recent college admission scandals.

    At its worst, someone might shoot their opponent in the back of the head. 

    Dr. Bastiat:

    So I suggest that we ignore natural ability – start with the presumption that everyone is equal. Especially in matters of public policy. By emphasizing IQ etc, we de-emphasize individual decision making, ambition, risk-taking, and so on. And that’s what matters. Natural ability is just not as important as we make it out to be.

    Or is it? What do you think?

    Well, it used to be common in the United States for private sector employers to give IQ tests. All of a suddent that was racism. So in lieu of that, private sector employees over rely on credentialism. I see a lot of job announcements that require a college degree when one is obviously not required to do the job. When the economy gets good and labor scarcer, by the way, many potential employers ignore that requirement.

    It wastes years of people’s time. And it has the effect of lowering standards for that degree. Grade inflation is an example of that.

    There is one significant example where the government does sanction IQ tests, though they don’t call them that. The military’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is at least partially an IQ test.

    • #5
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:15 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  6. KentForrester Coolidge

    Well put, Doc. IQ is a predictor of success in life, but like you I’d rather emphasize other attributes, like hard work and persistence. 

    That’s because a person with a high IQ has been given it. He didn’t work for it. — and therefore deserves no plaudits or attaboys. I also hesitate to tell a young girl how pretty she is. She was born with a perky nose, symmetrical features, and curly hair — none of which she had anything to do with. 

    I know the ways of the world, though, and I do sometimes tell new parents how cute their child is. Actually I tell them that even when the child is as ugly as a troll. 

    If a person applies hard work to accompany that high IQ, then we can give him an attaboy.

    • #6
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:15 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  7. Juliana Member

    Natural ability is important. If you have a very low IQ, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much ambition and toughness you have, you do not have the ability to become a rocket scientist or surgeon. Can you be successful and happy at some job? Of course. Will you make a lot of money at that job? Unlikely. You will always be dependent upon someone else to do the things you are not able to do.

    Instead, lets look at the 60% of the population in the average range. Do ambition and toughness and hard work combined with a certain amount of natural ability make a difference? Absolutely.

    As to attributing success to being smart. Research in the last ten years or so suggest that if you have a child with a high IQ it is counterproductive to compliment his or her ‘smartness.’ The child does not connect their academic success with hard work, and thus, if they are not successful right away, they begin to doubt their ability. By complimenting their hard work (as you with your children @drbastiat) you help them make the connection of success to effort rather than natural ability. Natural ability is still a factor, but the creativity, risk taking, and problem solving will be stymied if they are not first connected to effort.

     

     

    • #7
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:16 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  8. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat Post author

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    I’d add that when you do have a high IQ, the expectation that smarts = success can become its own terrible trap.

    Oh, absolutely…

    • #8
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:19 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat Post author

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat: Ambition

    1. Unwillingness to accept “pretty good”

    A pretty narrow definition of ambition.

    Fair point.

     

    Al Sparks (View Comment):
    Well, it used to be common in the United States for private sector employers to give IQ tests. All of a suddent that was racism. So in lieu of that, private sector employees over rely on credentialism.

    Another good point.

    • #9
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:21 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Aaron Miller Member

    You know “Bob” and I don’t. But was he really connecting IQ to success? Or was he simply noting that your children exhibit an admirable gift which not all possess, and how pleasant that gift must be for all?

    I’m a gifted musician. Most people aren’t. When I play music, people commonly say something like, “I wish I could do that.” They are addressing less what could be than what is. Whether or not they could learn to play an instrument with enough effort, playing music is a pleasant dream for them — one of countless dreams, seldom prioritized.

    The grass is always greener on the other side. Weak people wish they were strong. Short people wish they were tall. Lazy people wish they had more amibition or drive. Most people wish they were smarter.

    Many, though not all, traits can be fostered and improved to some extent. But regardless of one’s own gifts, it is natural to want more than one has… or other than one has. Like strength, intelligence is a tool that comes in handy so often that one’s limits are hard to ignore.

    There is reason not to envy the intelligent. Smart people are more capable of rationalization, as opposed to brute-force willfulness, so they fall for the dumbest ideas.

    • #10
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:24 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  11. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    You know “Bob” and I don’t. But was he really connecting IQ to success?

    In the interest of brevity, I didn’t adequately explain Bob’s probable motivations. Long story short, he is also very intelligent, but has made a lot of very bad decisions over the years and has made life very difficult for himself. He is jealous of those more successful than him, and constantly criticizes those he views as successful. I could go on, but let’s just say there is a reason that I reacted to his nice words the way I did. I took it as a back-handed insult, the way he typically does.

    John is also extremely left-wing, so some of this may simply be his political views. Leftism doesn’t really work without jealousy.

    That’s not fair, of course. He may have meant nothing at all by his comment, other than an effort to be nice. Which is why, if I were there, I would have merely said, “Thank you.”

    That’s what started me writing. I thought my immediate response didn’t really make any sense, and I wondered why that was.

    • #11
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Django Member

    A few thoughts. First, I am suspicious of any measurement of “natural ability”. When I was in second grade, I was considered to be a bit slow. When I was a high school senior, I was a genius. Nonsense on both estimates. Second, if one succeeds at a difficult task being told how lucky you are to be gifted is insulting because it denies, at least partially, the effort one puts in. Yes, I made it into a mathematics honor society, but I had worked my tail off to do so because mathematics was my weakest subject. Third, and most irritating to me – odd because it didn’t affect me – was the complaining a few years ago from some women that the female doll that was programmed to say something to the effect that “math is hard” was discouraging to girls who might otherwise be interested in mathematics. Want to know what is really discouraging? It is when you’ve been led to believe something is easy and failing because you expected a cake-walk. You immediately start questioning whether you belong rather than realizing that even a genius has to work hard sometimes. Happens to boys too. 

    • #12
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:34 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  13. Aaron Miller Member

    The “absent-minded professor” model comes to mind. There are varieties of intelligence. When a person excels in one, it can raise expectations of others… and accordingly deepen disappointment in failures. 

    I know a lifelong electrician studying to become a Master electrician. Study is tortuous because his mind is geared for concrete, hands-on work and struggles with abstractions. His wife helps him with book learning, which often prompts him to compliment her intelligence. But he could perform any electrical job and she can’t. 

    People complimented me for being smart my whole life. But after a lifetime of assisting other guys in mechanical work, I still struggle to recall the process and details when attempting to do such work on my own. Like many smart people, I can be pretty dumb.

    • #13
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:41 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  14. MarciN Member

    I agree about hard work and achievement. My hero is a violin teacher who used to make that same speech to his students.

    When it comes to standard measures of intelligence, I worry more about people at the high end of our intelligence scales who act immorally or destructively or stupidly. I am not smart enough to figure this out, how some of the people who got in and then graduated from the Ivies ended up so utterly lacking in intelligence and a sense of morality as I have seen.

    I also have trouble taking intelligence tests too seriously. The problem with standardized testing is the way the questions are constructed. There is always a wildly wrong answer, a mildly wrong answer, a close-to-right answer, and a right answer. It’s the close-to-right answers that bug me. I’ve read a couple of tests looking just for that problem, and I have found far too many instances of the close-to-right answer being too close for me. If a student had chosen it, I’d have given him or her the point.

    • #14
    • June 2, 2019, at 1:43 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. PHCheese Member

    Doc it requires a large measure of IQ to understand the significance of your eight attributes. However just being on the far right side of the Bell Curve has led many to a life of mediocrity. I remember once being told that potential is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. I have seen much talent wasted in my life but having intelligence is a prime ingredient required not to waste it.My IQ is in the top 5% but if I ever suffer from envy it is the envy of genius. It’s like playing basketball. Yes I can play but it’s a lot easier and fun when you are seven feet tall and more likely to win the championship.

    • #15
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:03 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. Addiction Is A Choice Member

    I’ve read a lot of your stuff, Doc; this might be my favorite!

    • #16
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:07 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Arthur Beare Member

    F. Scott Fitzgerald said something to the effect that when he was young he thought that any problem could be solved by some combination of intelligence and effort.

    As we get older, most of us realize than there is only one term in that equation that we have any control over.

    • #17
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:21 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Bob Thompson Member

    Arthur Beare (View Comment):

    F. Scott Fitzgerald said something to the effect that when he was young he thought that any problem could be solved by some combination of intelligence and effort.

    As we get older, most of us realize than there is only one term in that equation that we have any control over.

    The most important effort to be exerted is the development of the ability to use intelligence advantageously. There’s a whole package there. Those individuals of average intelligence with highly developed other pieces of the package do very well.

    • #18
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:36 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. Richard Fulmer Member

    Meh. You’ve just won life’s lottery. Check your privilege. Ambition, toughness, hard work, creativity, responsibility, persistence are nothing more than babbity, bourgeoise, middle-class morality. </sarcasm off>

    • #19
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:56 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  20. Arahant Member

    Dr. Bastiat: I could obviously go on and on, and you could add more entries yourself that have helped you in your life, but my point is that of all these things that led to my success, I haven’t mentioned intelligence yet.

    Actually, you did, and you mentioned it several times. Creativity? That’s a form of intelligence. Ability to see that there are ways around roadblocks? That’s intelligence. Ability to rate risks? That’s intelligence.

    But, not all of what you mentioned was intelligence. Hard work and toughness are two very big things that beat intelligence in many areas of life. Once one has a modicum of intelligence, hard work gets one further than more intelligence.

    Another great point you made is that measuring everything in dollars and cents is nonsense.

    Too much intelligence becomes alienating.

    • #20
    • June 2, 2019, at 2:58 PM PDT
    • 12 likes
  21. The Great Adventure! Member

    Schmoozing. You left out the ability to schmooze. Those who possess the innate ability to carry a conversation while simultaneously making the other person think they are carrying it are usually quite successful, whatever that means. 

    • #21
    • June 2, 2019, at 3:18 PM PDT
    • 16 likes
  22. Django Member

    I think one of the underrated characteristics of the intelligent people I know is the ability to maintain focus. They just don’t get distracted when working on a difficult problem or trying to convey information. One of my favorite examples of this characteristic was the story of A. Einstein lecturing at a university and having some kid in the audience challenge him by asking him to define space and time. It was a pointless distraction. Einstein’s answer was, “Space is what you measure with a yardstick, while time is what you measure with a clock.”

    • #22
    • June 2, 2019, at 3:31 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  23. WillowSpring Member

    Very good post, Doc. 

    When I was in Jr. High, we had an IQ test and I happened to see my result – 145 (I was a fast reader).

    After that, I decided that I should be able to figure out most things. In High School and my work life, I met many people that by my measure were smarter or knew more about something than I did, but no one would work harder than me.

    Being “gifted” can also be a curse. We have two sons – our oldest tried several sports (wresting and cycling) and really struggled, but pushed himself to get better. The youngest could do anything he tried on the first attempt. He excelled at the start of his gymnastics class, but when things got to require more work, he lost interest. Both sons kept these characteristics into adult-hood. Oldest kept plugging away and by most measures is a real success. The youngest took the easy path and although he is doing ok, he is not living up to his potential.

     

    • #23
    • June 2, 2019, at 3:42 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  24. JoelB Member

    @drbastiat Do you think the loss of the family hog farm helped to give you a little incentive to succeed, or that the work required of you to help maintain the farm contributed to your work ethic?

    • #24
    • June 2, 2019, at 3:45 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. Arahant Member

    WillowSpring (View Comment):
    Being “gifted” can also be a curse. We have two sons – our oldest tried several sports (wresting and cycling) and really struggled, but pushed himself to get better. The youngest could do anything he tried on the first attempt.

    @seawriter has often mentioned how he benefited by being the slow one in the family.

     

    • #25
    • June 2, 2019, at 3:55 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat Post author

    JoelB (View Comment):

    @drbastiat Do you think the loss of the family hog farm helped to give you a little incentive to succeed, or that the work required of you to help maintain the farm contributed to your work ethic?

    Oh heavens yes.

    First, I was furious. Next, I was determined to beat the $%#&ing odds. And so on. But mainly, pure rage. It can be very motivating. 

    Also, in farming, you learn how to work at monotonous tasks. That’s an important skill. 

    • #26
    • June 2, 2019, at 4:07 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  27. Arahant Member

    Dr. Bastiat: TRIGGER WARNING: There are parts of this essay in which I sound like an arrogant twit.

    By the way, I don’t think you came off as an arrogant twit in this.

    And here’s the Progressive view:

    • #27
    • June 2, 2019, at 4:19 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  28. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Django (View Comment):
    I think one of the underrated characteristics of the intelligent people I know is the ability to maintain focus.

    I’m not sure focus is one and the same with intelligence. I’m reminded of the movie City Slickers where the Jack Palance character, a late 20th century cowboy provides us his secret to life.

    • #28
    • June 2, 2019, at 4:25 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  29. Django Member

    Al Sparks (View Comment):

    Django (View Comment):
    I think one of the underrated characteristics of the intelligent people I know is the ability to maintain focus.

    I’m not sure focus is one and the same with intelligence. I’m reminded of the movie City Slickers where the Jack Palance character, a late 20th century cowboy provides us his secret to life.

    I did not make that claim. I just pointed out a characteristic that the intelligent — in my estimate — people I know share. 

    • #29
    • June 2, 2019, at 5:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  30. DonG Coolidge

    Dr. Bastiat: This brings up another problem I have with all this – the use of money to measure success in life. It’s a tempting metric, partially because it’s easy to measure.

    See, you are showing your brilliance there. Very few people understand the distortion of things easily measured. 

    • #30
    • June 2, 2019, at 5:15 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
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