Why Dumb People Don’t Succeed
And what it has to do with genetic intelligence
By MARTIN REZNY
So, I’ve watched a lot of Jordan Peterson’s lectures with some Sam Harris thrown in lately and I now believe that in my previous article about the unintelligence of IQ testing, I may have missed the crux of the issue.
While I still am convinced that intelligence is much too complex and nuanced to be expressible with a single number, and that IQ as a concept does motivate intellectual narcissism and racist policy, those are not necessarily the main problems here. You see, IQ does “work”.
There is a reason why psychologists like Jordan Peterson believe that it is one of the best measures, if not the best measure, in all of social science. Put simply, IQ predicts success. Namely, career success, or job performance and wealth, along with a couple of other things that I’ll get into later.
Can you already see the problem here? Don’t worry if you don’t, neither do many presumably very intelligent social scientists. If IQ is an accurate measure of intelligence, and if it correlates with high social standing, then the higher your social standing is, the less of an idiot you presumably are.
Well, I’m reasonably certain that common sense postulates the opposite. At least on average, if we’re being honest. It may mean that IQ objectively measures something, but jumping to call it intelligence in this case makes about as much sense as assuming that every CEO must be a genius.
I understand how un-American it is to ascribe any positive attributes to a person who failed at something, but think about it for a split second — do you honestly think that all generally intelligent people have to even want to succeed at whatever it is in their society that pays the most at the moment?
Put simply again, what if what pays happens to be objectively retarded?
And “at the moment” is the operative term here. Currently, being naturally good at and inclined toward coding or sales is more likely to make one measurably successful than, say, being the most naturally talented teacher or warrior. Presumably, the content of “successful” intelligence will keep on evolving in the future. If IQ keeps up, maybe it measures something else — the drive to succeed.
The Big Personality Problem
This, I realize, is a very charitable term to use as an umbrella for internal “success” drivers like selfishness, greed, arrogance, obsession, etc., but I guess personality science isn’t in the business of making moral judgments. Which is good, especially to the extent to which any personal attributes are genetic and therefore not optional, even though spades are still spades.
How Jordan Peterson points out in many of his talks in a rather clinical psychological language, the personality attributes that most solidly indicate success along with IQ today are high conscientiousness and low agreeableness, or an obsessive compulsion to meticulousness based on being disgusted with impurity, along with an urge to fight to get more than others, to get your way. Which is part of the reason for the wage gap according to Peterson, because women are overall more agreeable.
Some believe that this makes him a sexist, but to be fair, during the infamous interview (where he was being extremely misrepresented to his face), he did clarify that it may be possible to have a corporate culture where agreeableness becomes a more rewarded trait. Again, the science isn’t there to make moral judgments, it just describes how things objectively are at present. The level of agreeableness of either men or women can evolve in time, and we have some power over what traits will be rewarded.
Of course, any single attribute becomes detrimental to any form of success when it gets extreme, and most generally bad things serve constructive purposes in moderation. One can be too disagreeable or meticulous, and the very same drive to social success likely results in IQ correlating to lower likelihood of criminal behavior or death. Though again, assuming that criminal behavior or courting death are never justified is a bit intellectually dishonest. While such things are measurable, their context is less so.
If you think about it, you should expect that whoever isn’t socially succeeding, even if for justified reasons and not due to inability, should be more likely to have to resort to criminal actions and more likely to face all kinds of negative consequences. You should expect that if one cannot or doesn’t want to fit in, they won’t progress as far in the educational system as those who can and do want to get degrees.
Who knows, maybe there are objective differences in IQ between ethnic groups, but what they mean is a group difference in selfishness, ambition, or conformity, rather than anything that would deserve to be called intelligence. Maybe it’s sometimes intelligence (not being able to solve the problem), sometimes motivation (not wanting to “solve” the “problem”), and most of the time a mix of both. Lord knows that success at school certainly leans more heavily toward conformity rather than creativity, curiosity, or free thought — essential elements of any critical intelligence.
I don’t know about you, but if I suddenly got an urge to obey unjust laws more strongly or sell out all of my principles just to become more popular and therefore wealthier and healthier, I wouldn’t consider that a boost to my intelligence. The same goes if I suddenly started caring more about how I score in any kind of test, or if I decided that I really need more degrees.
Maybe in order to learn how to better solve the common classes of problems in IQ tests, it mainly matters whether the person is motivated enough to care about arbitrary educational requirements needed to eventually get better career. If one doesn’t care about career that much, why would they care to learn how to solve abstract arbitrary problems imposed from without, especially if their whole ethnic or cultural group has been denied proper academic education, and success, for generations?
The Origin of Success
This would actually both explain the Flynn Effect (why IQ keeps quickly and steadily rising), and why it’s rising more quickly in developing countries. It would also explain why people from East Asia are doing so well overall on IQ tests, given how extremely intense and serious are the testing and work cultures in the educational systems of these countries. It would be because these are the people under the most pressure to conform and perform.
Following this logic, IQ should in fact keep being correlated to success almost regardless of what is its content, as long as its content is substantially similar to the kind of arbitrary tests that determine success at school, or enough of a status symbol so that people with a drive to succeed will care about scoring highly on it. A test of caring about being tested, meaning that increasing IQ would reflect increasing pressure to meet academic requirements and a growing culture of careerism.
To be fair, a tendency to either succeed or to not care about succeeding could conceivably differ between ethnic groups, given that either the greater wealth and health, or the quality of the social attitude, can play into what the collectively preferred choice of a mate is in any particular community.
Assuming that for example African Americans were put into a position where for generations, they effectively couldn’t have been given high social status no matter what, those seeking it wouldn’t have been significantly more successful anyway, while the Ashkenazi Jews or various Asian peoples could have gone through generations of a drive to succeed in a socially acceptable way often leading to success and therefore an advantage.
I’d call the former a vicious cycle and the latter a virtuous cycle, but that would presume that one attitude is objectively superior to the other, which I personally don’t subscribe to. Neither is certainly more intelligent, they’re both blind, random adaptations with situational benefits that can backfire.
Put a naturally success-driven person into a situation where they cannot be socially accepted, and they will likely fail bitterly while being used. Put a naturally non-conformist, family-as-opposed-to-career-oriented person into a success-driven culture, and chances are they’ll be much happier than the “successful” people, or succeed at careers that are all about care or entertainment. Big part of it will be nurture and agency in any case.
The Growing Pains of Social Science
A question — am I racist now for considering that there may be genetic differences between ethnic groups? The outrage over this issue only illustrates the immaturity of our social science and the lack of the ability of the general public to understand how it works or what it takes. We can’t change physics by wishing (well, probably), but we can change our minds constantly about what success means, how it can be achieved, and how it relates to intelligence. None of that can be measured truly objectively.
You can make measurements, sure, but only of an evolving phenomenon which is part of a feedback loop. You can only make sweeping generalizations about whole populations, with little usefulness for particular individuals. You must reduce the reality to a limited number of variables in a world of infinite complexity, thus inherently misrepresenting it to a degree. Your conclusions will be twisted for political reasons, and if you produce any scale or metric, underperformers will be stigmatized. New policies and trends will emerge specifically to interfere with your results.
Think how hard it is to convince people about basic stuff with no personal stakes like the shape of the planet, which can be filmed and streamed in real time. You need to convince them that some of them were, relatively speaking, born stupid and are doomed to failure, or that ethnic groups on the whole have objectively different distributions of personality traits with moral judgments attached. And that’s nothing compared to trying to come up with a sensible policy on the basis of such scientific data.
Making things even worse, pretty soon we will be able to change our genetics in major ways thanks to CRISPR, and if we’re not careful, it will result in a Gattaca-like dystopia, dividing the society between superhumans and subhumans. IQ can very well be one of the deciding metrics in how that distinction is made, despite the fact that we currently at best assume that it has anything to do with intelligence, while arbitrarily deciding that human beings are supposed to be ranked according to intelligence. Facts are facts, sure, but science doesn’t make us do anything about them.
Maybe we should start by recognizing that not all science is born equal. Our current social science is nowhere near as solid or developed as nuclear physics, making its conclusions very provisional and our understanding of the facts pretty shallow. Before starting to radically reshape societal institutions or escalating any culture wars, we should get a better idea of what IQ actually measures and think real long and hard about the whole concept of intelligence and our biases about it. Or we can do this, I guess: