IQ and Income Inequality

Life, it turns out, isn't fair.

A recent Business Insider commentary and NYT op-ed seek to debunk Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis that anyone can become great at anything given 10,000 hours of practice.

Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” He adds that intellectual ability — the trait that an I.Q. score reflects — turns out not to be that important. “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.”

But this isn’t quite the story that science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

Dave Schuler, whose IQ is almost surely upwards of the 99.9 percentile, says So what?

The highest paid nuclear physicist, whose IQ is almost undoubtedly four standard deviations above normal, probably earns less than the median cardiac surgeon who almost certainly isn’t even above the second standard deviation above normal. The supply of nuclear physicists may be low but the demand is pretty low, too.

Another factor that should be kept in mind. Cognitive development isn’t the only kind. Physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development are all important and, guess what? Individuals with high levels of social development are more likely to succeed physically, cognitively, and emotionally than those with the highest levels of cognitive development and lower levels of physical, emotional, etc.

Quite right. Someone with a 120 IQ who’s attractive and socially skilled is much more likely to succeed in a world where other human beings make judgments than an ugly, socially awkward person with a 160 IQ.

And here’s the thing: Most of these things are largely innate, hard-wired traits that we can influence only at the margins. Sure, we can take advantage of whatever cognitive gifts we’ve been given by reading, studying, and otherwise working to expand our minds. Similarly, we can maximize our physical talents with strenuous exercise, good grooming, and so forth. But we’re operating within pre-set boundaries.

This is all widely understood intellectually but we tend to ignore it operationally. We praise people for their smarts, good looks, athletic ability, work ethic, and social graces far above the degree that they’ve been earned. And, to the extent that we distribute the good things in life based on these largely inherent traits, we have something of a problem. Dave concludes:

For me the bottom line is that for the foreseeable future we’re going to be building a society and economy in which half of the people are normal (i. e. within one standard deviation of median) while a quarter are below normal and a quarter are above normal. Allowing our society to transmogrify into one in which the only people who can prosper are those in that top quarter or, worse, in the top .01% is a society doomed to failure.

Michael Reynolds gets even more depressing in the first comment in the thread. Noting that machines are getting smarter faster than we are, he wonders:

Is there a way to build a society where people who can be profitably replaced by machines will nevertheless be employed? Maybe, but what would be the point? Would it make sense to take the robots off GM’s assembly line? Should we outlaw Siri to save the jobs of people at the Information booth?

[…]

As it bites more into the engineers, radiologists and lawyers it will suddenly take on political urgency, but those people are probably better able, by virtue of IQ, to reprogram for different careers. People in the bottom quarter? Not so much.

I’ve expressed variations of this concern for years. We’ve been replacing massive numbers of low-IQ-required jobs with automation for as long as I can remember. I’d wager that a vanishingly small number of the tens of thousands of people who used to pump gas at the service stations around the country wound up working for Google or Microsoft.

Nor, as Dave points out in another post, is education likely the answer. The college enrollment rate of recent high school graduates is at an all-time high. So is income inequality.

So, what is the answer? Beats the hell out of me. The Occupy movement may be an indicator that people aren’t going to put up with the top tenth of a percent getting fantastically wealthy while the rest of the ship sinks. But I don’t see Michael’s future, where the most gifted do productive work and the vast majority lives on the dole, as socially sustainable, either.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. george says:

    Is there a way to build a society where people who can be profitably replaced by machines will nevertheless be employed? Maybe, but what would be the point? Would it make sense to take the robots off GM’s assembly line? Should we outlaw Siri to save the jobs of people at the Information booth?

    It may well be that within a century there will be almost no job other than entertainment (and with virtual realities who knows) that won’t be done better by robots/AI than humans can do. One way or another we’re going to need to come up with a solution, as the total need for human workers is probably going to number in the thousands for the whole world by 2100.

  2. Ben Wolf says:

    It might help to understand IQ is an ephemeral concept for which no conclusive test actually exists, because we consistently fail to account for exceedingly bright people who don’t test well. I’ve worked with many a student who did poorly on examinations because they either didn’t think conventionally and therefore interpreted the questions differently or suffered from test related anxiety which damaged their scoring. As a child I was known ( and punished) for marking out the multiple choice answers when I thought they were stupid and writing in my own (I can assure you this is not rewarded) and that includes on the myriad of “intelligence tests” which bear no resemblance to each other.

    I find our drive to label individuals as mentally superior/inferior a little distasteful anyway. Give someone work an see if they can do it.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Someone with a 120 IQ who’s attractive and socially skilled is much more likely to succeed in a world where other human beings make judgments than an ugly, socially awkward person with a 160 IQ.

    No wonder I can’t get ahead!

  4. john personna says:

    The most important and obvious answer is that this shreds “get a job” libertarianism.

    Want health care? Get a job. Except, oops, you didn’t get those gifts.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    It might help to understand IQ is an ephemeral concept for which no conclusive test actually exists, because we consistently fail to account for exceedingly bright people who don’t test well.

    Indeed. A buddy of mine who was an undiagnosed dyslexic who dropped out of school after the 5th grade because his mother was an untreated schizophrenic, his father was MIA, and feeding himself was a lot more important than being told 17 times a day how stupid he was, was also the most street-smart person I’ve ever met. He did quite well until his own schizophrenia in combination with alcoholism took him down to a place no one should have to live in.

  6. john personna says:

    (As an aside, the gits/rewards lottery can be capricious. Put hip-hop artists or computer nerds in another century and you’ve got to hope they have another skill set. As you touched on above, we often assume a successful person is more of a generalist and more self-made then they might be.)

  7. john personna says:

    (Too bad the editor is gone, “gifts/rewards” though for hip-hop/nerds “gits” might not have been far off…)

  8. john personna says:

    Oh, and to pile on the reasons we are not quite the critters we think we are:

    In 1988, psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown published an article making the somewhat disturbing claim that positive self-deception is a normal and beneficial part of most people’s everyday outlook. They suggested that average people hold cognitive biases in three key areas: a) viewing themselves in unrealistically positive terms; b) believing they have more control over their environment than they actually do; and c) holding views about the future that are more positive than the evidence can justify. The typical person, it seems, depends on these happy delusions for the self-esteem needed to function through a normal day. It’s when the fantasies start to unravel that problems arise.

    It gets worse:

    Studies into clinical depression have yielded similar findings, leading to the development of an intriguing, but still controversial, concept known as depressive realism. This theory puts forward the notion that depressed individuals actually have more realistic perceptions of their own image, importance, and abilities than the average person. While it’s still generally accepted that depressed people can be negatively biased in their interpretation of events and information, depressive realism suggests that they are often merely responding rationally to realities that the average person cheerfully denies.

    Barry Ritholtz’ shorthand is that we are “pants-wearing monkeys” and doing the best we can.

  9. Liberty60 says:

    Is there really a correlation between IQ and income?

    I understand that there may be one between middle to affluent income and IQ. IOW, certain well-compensated fields like law and medicine require a decent IQ level;

    But what about the 1%?

    From what I can see, landing in the 1% has as much to do with skilled parent selection, luck and social networking skills as anything.

    I would point to George W Bush as my star witness.

  10. john personna says:

    Regarding IQ itself, I read a book recently which talked about how “numbers reveal and conceal the truth.” The author’s general advice was to be wary of measures that collapse multiple dimensions of value to a single number. In those cases we are probably looking more for convenience than truth. He was specifically down on IQ for that reason.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    @Liberty60:

    From what I can see, landing in the 1% has as much to do with skilled parent selection, luck and social networking skills as anything.

    Thom Hartmann refers to that as the “Lucky Sperm Club.” There are many factors. I’m in the top 5% and as an electrical manufacture engineer who was resonably successful. I was very good at problem solving and cause and effect. That may relate to IQ. Another thing that led to my success was adaptability. Technology changed so fast I literally had to reinvent myself every three to five years. Many of my very bright peers were unable to do that and fell to the side of the road.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    (Too bad the editor is gone, “gifts/rewards” though for hip-hop/nerds “gits” might not have been far off…)

    🙂

  13. michael reynolds says:

    I think a lot of times the IQ argument gets bogged down in debates over testing or different intelligences.

    It is certainly true that some smart people test poorly. But most smart people test well. And it’s certainly the case that there are different types of ability, what some refer to as multiple intelligences, but I think it’s more accurate to call those things talents.

    There is such as a thing as intelligence. G. But G’s usefulness is determined by secondary factors like innate talent, environment, education, health, position in society, etc… G isn’t a magic cure-all. I see it as sort of equivalent to horsepower. If you don’t have the horsepower you can’t hit 140 MPH. If you do have the horsepower you can hit 140 MPH and drive right into a wall.

    All that said, I’m living proof that G can make life a hell of a lot easier. Very few people can be as dumb with the management of their lives as I was up to about the age of 35 (IQ does not equal wisdom) and still end up successful.

    It’s an edge, sort of like fabulous good looks, which I also possess. (Did I just hear a snort of derision?)

  14. ponce says:

    As it bites more into the engineers…

    Engineers were the first people replaced by computers over 50 years ago.

    I don’t think things are as gloomy as Michael makes them out to be.

    My local grocery store recently shut down its self checkout lanes.

  15. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think IQ tests for a skill set that is often useful in industrial societies, without being sufficient nor exactly intelligence.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    (Did I just hear a snort of derision?)

    That wasn’t a snort. That was my lunch coming out my nose.

  17. Ben says:

    @ponce:

    My local grocery store recently shut down its self checkout lanes.

    If my local grocery store does that, I’ll be finding a new local grocery store that still has them.

    People are being replaced by automation/software/do-it-yourself service because that’s what most people WANT. It improves the product to the customer. There’s no way around that. If you tell people their products have to be crappier, more expensive or delivered more slowly just so we can employ more people, then they’re going to take their business elsewhere.

  18. superdestroyer says:

    @Ben:

    Wegman’s recently put in self-checkout after not having it for year. It think the neighborhood cities where the number 1 grocery store for custoner service puts in are capable of handling self-checkout.

    Could anyone image a gas station removing the pay at the pump and going back to full service? People would revolt.

    People have to understand that you could take a nuclear physicist and train them to be a physician such as a pathologist or internist but maybe not a surgeon due to the need for physical skills. However, there are very few physicians who could be trained up to a PhD in nuclear physics based on the need for brain power.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ben:

    People are being replaced by automation/software/do-it-yourself service because that’s what most people WANT.

    There is a large segment of the population who do NOT want self checkout. That is why many stores are removing them. They rarely get used, they take up valuable floor space better used for other things, and the lines with checkers are too long. Not everywhere, but in many places.

    My own preference? I refuse to do their work for them while they charge me more for less. To each their own.

  20. superdestroyer says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Why stand in line with five people when the store can have four or five self-checkout lines. My guess is that the stores is self-checkout line issues depend more on alcohol or deli sales that make it harder, have not implemented bar-code for everything, and do not self-bar coding for produce.

    The best thing many stores have done is put in self bar-coding for produce.

  21. Trumwill says:

    With regard to the self-checkout, it’s really not either-or. Some places are adding them, others are subtracting. I don’t know which way the general trend is. I know for my preference, it depends largely on the circumstances. When buying produce, or if I have a lot of unbaggable items, self-checkout is more trouble than it is worth. When I am at Walmart, though, I’d much rather deal with a machine than the understaffed and often unmotivated manned checkout stations.

    What I would really like to see is the ability to order fast food from a kiosk. Jack-in-the-Box gave it a try, but it doesn’t seem to have taken like I would prefer.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    @ponce: As an engineer I don’t see that. Computers were simply a tool that made it possible to design things that would have not been possible without them. Today’s multilayer circuit boards could not have been done by hand but the design requires the same amount of engineers.

  23. ponce says:

    @ponce: As an engineer I don’t see that. Computers were simply a tool that made it possible to design things that would have not been possible without them.

    Ron,

    Before computers, companies like Boeing, GE and Ford had armies of slide rule-equipped junior engineers hand calculating numbers and hand drawing blueprints for commercial airliners, washing machine, automobiles, etc.

    Heck, just learning how to make your own set of French curves or how to draw a proper arrowhead or how to draw a proper trend line through a set of data points were skills that took many years to develop.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    @Trumwill:

    Produce has a four digit code that tell the machines what it is. Wegman’s has scales and bar code printers in the produce section. All one has to do is put the produce in a bag, note the four digit number, put it on the scales, and enter the four digit code. The machine prints a bar code that can be used to hold the bag closed. It makes check out so much easier even when using a human. No guess,no remembering, no looking things up.

  25. Ron Beasley says:

    @ponce: I primarily know electronics and I didn’t see any reduction in the number of engineers only the complexity of the design – and at 65 I remember slide rules. I saw the components on a circuit board go to less than 50 to more than 1,000. Oh, and I even remember vacuum tubes. Now I don’t know that much about appliances, autos or air planes but I do know they have something now they didn’t used to have – a lot of very complex circuit boards that someone had to design.

  26. G.A.Phillips says:

    I primarily know electronics and I didn’t see any reduction in the number of engineers only the complexity of the design – and at 65 I remember slide rules. I saw the components on a circuit board go to less than 50 to more than 1,000. Oh, and I even remember vacuum tubes. Now I don’t know that much about appliances, autos or air planes but I do know they have something now they didn’t used to have – a lot of very complex circuit boards that someone had to design.

    Just listening to “the Amazing Story Of Quantum Mechanics” Again…It’s a good book, er, Audio book:) by James Kakalios.

  27. steve says:

    “They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. ”

    I am not so sure about the SAt as a marker anymore. Many kids start on SAT practice tests before their teens.

    Steve

  28. Peter says:

    People with very high I.Q. scores are prone to falling off the Nerd Cliff, in other words they may be extremely intelligent but are wholly lacking in normal social skills.

  29. Brett says:

    I think it comes down to which the robots replace first: low-skilled labor or high-skilled “reasoning” positions – “Working Robots” vs “Smart Computers”. We like to point to robots replacing workers on factory lines, but robots in general are still well short of replacing human labor in a cost-effective way for most “physical manipulation” jobs. Think of things as simple as moving the couch into someone’s apartment, or small-scale component installation in someone’s home.

    “Reasoning”, on the other hand . . . really depends on the definition. We’re already seeing the rise of computers that can replace a fair number of thinking positions (language translation, still in its infancy), or more often make it possible for ten guys to do the work of 100 in the past (possibly lawyers). Artificial Intelligence isn’t quite there yet, but it’s closing in.

    If “Smart Computers” come first, I think we’ll be fine . . . with some disgruntlement. SIRI is only the beginning – imagine if everyone 20 years down the line has a personal AI assistant that they carry with them at all times, that can do a lot of the brain work for them (and with them) in collaboration with other Human-AI combos. You’d still have humans for a lot of the physical work.

    If “Working Robots” come first, then it really depends on how much they cost. If the costs were very low, people could theoretically own several robots that they maintain and collect the pay for. More likely is that we end up with a more forced situation, like “large scale dole” or “everyone is forced to work 3 hours a week with a high minimum wage”.

    Ultimately, we’d need to move towards income from investment/wealth and away from income from wages. Instead of getting money from working a job, people would collect income from their share of the (mostly) automated businesses. *

    * If the automation and AI are really good, then we could end up in a kind of “robot socialism” with a smaller economy on top.

  30. matt says:

    @superdestroyer: HEB runs that system in their stores and it works great. I for one love the self checkout lanes as I tend to want to get in get my items and get out without waiting in line for +15 minutes..

  31. mannning says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Circuit boards with only a few gates were the latest and greatest back in the late 50’s, so to achieve a 1,000 or 10,000 gate machine was a monstrous task and a monstrosity when completed. It took a team of engineers to accomplish it. My first design and development took fully 8 racks to accomplish a 24 bit parallel arithmetic unit and a specialized programmer unit, and utilized a set of 12 different high speed and 12 different low speed modules, NOR/NAND, etc. This took a team of 6 people, 2 engineers and 4 technicians about 6 months as I recall.

    Today, by using families of predesigned and largely prefabricated component sets, that same number of engineers can work miracles in design and fabrication of extremely high gate count machines with a very low board count, including the firmware or software that creates the functionality of the machine, and in record time too. Obviously, I am thinking of INTEL and AMD as prime examples of suppliers of chip and board sets.

    What I am saying is that for many classes of digital machines today, I believe it takes far fewer engineers to create the machine, not the same number as before, but with the knowledge of the sets and how to use them. If, however, you are designing highly unique and complex boards whose functionality has not been standardized or made adaptable by programming, then I believe the number of design engineers needed would perhaps be roughly the same.

    Today’s engineers are standing on the shoulders of prior engineering talent that created the more or less universal high density chip sets in use now.

  32. Eric Florack says:

    The most important and obvious answer is that this shreds “get a job” libertarianism.

    Not at all. Because, you see, without governmental intervention the far larger number of the cream of the IQ crop is going to rise to the top. James is correct in that life is unfair. Yet, government is usually more so.

    Today’s engineers are standing on the shoulders of prior engineering talent that created the more or less universal high density chip sets in use now.

    True. Oddly, better designs in computers are because of better designs in computers. (Chuckle)
    What I mean to say is that when computers were designed with pencil and paper, (And yes, beasley, Slide rules….) they were of course simpler affairs. It was quite a bit to keep track of with those methods. Now, of course, all computer design is done on earlier generations of computers. As these each become more complex , so too, the next generation of computers and so on.

    that said, I tend to question that such will actually have the ability to actually reason. Granted, that our daily decision trees are nothing more than if -then fall throughs. But I suggest that these are far more complex than can be dealt with by any machine. Certainly now, and in my view probably in the future.

  33. Eric Florack says:

    @superdestroyer: Wegmans? You’re from my neck of the woods, then?

  34. MBunge says:

    I’m fascinated at how these discussions just blow past the idea of Peak Oil and other resource depletion. Yes, I realize predictions on this front have been famously wrong, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. This planet is made up of X amount of material. If X is consumed, not only will there be a point where X runs out but, long before that, there will be a point where the expense and difficulty of finding and utilizing X will rise to impractical levels.

    Or to put it another way, all of these discussions about productivity and robots and what have you are all built on the assumption that the economic realities of the last century will not only continue forever but that all the positive trends will accelerate and strengthen. When I read people fretting over robots replacing human labor, I wonder what those robots will be powered by 100 years from now? If economic growth of the 2000s is less like the 1900s and more like the 18 or 1700s, theorizing about what to do with all our excess, unproductive humanity is going rank up there with the greatest philosophical boners of all time.

    Mike

  35. mannning says:

    Engineers have their dreams.

    My Dream 1 is cheap and plentiful energy from some form of fusion.

    My Dream 2 is a desalinization process that provides potable water in copious quantities to make deserts bloom around the world. Current processes are expensive and relatively low volume.

    My Dream 3 is an inexpensive and perhaps solar and battery powered system for sending well-designed education programs into poor areas of the world in the appropriate language, and in language instruction per se. Versions of this are already in being for a few areas.

    My Dream 4 is a major breakthrough in the battery area in order to make transportation costs far less expensive and relatively pollution-free.

    I can dream, can’t I?

  36. BillZ says:

    I long ago disposed of the IQ index number as a good measure of “smart”. Sure, it measures something, but…
    I knew a guy who was regarded as dumb, but he embraced good advice. He was told drugs are bad, to work hard, and be religious. His life is better than many high IQ folks who were too smart for such simple virtues.
    So I wondered: who is smarter here?

  37. john personna says:

    The most important and obvious answer is that this shreds “get a job” libertarianism.

    Not at all. Because, you see, without governmental intervention the far larger number of the cream of the IQ crop is going to rise to the top. James is correct in that life is unfair. Yet, government is usually more so.

    I think you rather missed the point.

  38. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    I can dream, can’t I?

    Yes:) But as one who tries to figure out what a Engineer is thinking and then build it, I would say that the wheel still works good so leave that dream alone…

  39. mannning says:

    @Have A Nice G.A.:

    Then you haven’t been working with competent, computer-literate engineers and their technician support! They should be able to convey their ideas clearly and simply on paper, or they are simply incompetent. And, of course, wheels will be used when wheels should be used, at least in my dreams…