IQ and Income Inequality
Life, it turns out, isn't fair.
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.