Blind Elites

We have many clues that hint at the intelligence of the people around us.  These clues include the size of their vocabulary, the wit of their jokes, and the insight of their observations.  These clues, however, are less useful for distinguishing the intelligence of people who are smarter than us; we may not get their joke, understand their insight, or recognize their big word.  We might rely on evaluations of people smarter that us, but this just moves the problem back a level. 

This encourages assortative mating, because, for example, only the smartest women can can tell clearly who are the smartest men.  And it often makes it hard to reward people who are smarter than elites.  Yes, in some areas of life, like chess, intelligence may reveal itself quickly in better outcomes.  But usually, one has relatively little to gain by acting smarter than elites; elites usually can’t tell the difference, and if they can they may resent you for making them look bad.  You may well be better off hiding your extra intelligence, finding an area where the elites are smarter than you, or finding an area where better outcomes quickly show smarts. 

Arbitrary fluctuations in who are the elites in an area can thus change whether smart people are attracted to that area.  And the possibility of such fluctuations pushes smart people toward areas where better outcomes quickly reveal intelligence.  This is a plausible explanation for why smart people tend to prefer mathematical areas.  I quickly learned as a new teacher that my students were just as bad at math as at writing, but they preferred writing assignments because they could not as easily see that their writing was bad; math reveals intelligence more clearly.  Of course this effect could induce people to rely too much on math; people may prefer to show their smarts at the expense of being useful.

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  • Greg Marsh

    Clearly I would fail to recognise someone who was incommensurably cleverer than me, but I’m not sure that I agree that it is especially difficult in practice to identify people who are somewhat more able than I am, even when ‘intelligence’ is narrowly construed. In fact it’s usually pretty obvious: they understand concepts more quickly than I do, reason more rapidly, make connections I would not have made, recall things I had forgotten; it’s attractive and humbling in equal measure. And extremely useful to me if I can befriend them (“no, don’t eat the dark red berries; they’re poisonous”).

    And so long as I have some fairly good approximation of ‘is smarter than me’ — that is providing only that I’m not so threatened by that on account of being in immediate direct competition for patronage — specialisation takes care of the rest. So for a role in which intelligence is particularly necessary (semiconductor design, say, or indeed red berry selection) I defer to someone who is a bit cleverer (not to mention more informed) in the relevant dimension, in order that if necessary they can do the same in turn. A couple more cycles, and before long the right brilliant PhD student slots into the right crucial R&D role.

    My experience is in business rather than academia; in that domain it is usually inadvisable to spend too much time worrying about someone’s intelligence. More relevant is: ‘how effective will this person be in this specific context’, which is forward-looking and non-generalisable. Intelligence, intellect, achievements, credentials, enthusiasm, experience: these are all at best proxies for that assessment. It’s how useful the person will prove to be that is the only thing that really matters.

    So too for appointments made by ‘an elite’, however that is understood. If the relevant test is effectiveness — which may partly be a function of intelligence or academic attainment, but is just as often about how well someone understands the implicit rules of the game and therefore for whom transaction costs of interactions are low — I might do better to hire a less brilliant person who has been more appropriately socialised. This is why business schools and elite employers do not select on academic criteria alone, why recruiters tend to hire in their own image, and why homogenous teams are more efficient.

    Think too of well-paid domains such as a stock trading in which intelligence is only one factor, but less of a selection pressure than is aggressiveness or stamina. Or consider politics, where general ability may matter somewhat, but where emollience, tact, ingenuity, charisma and guile will get you far further than wit or vocabulary. And in practice those talents tend not to require much selection from above: they’ll usually help ensure a rise to the top in any case.

  • Chuck

    At the Dilbert Blog, Scott Adams says if he could make one change to make the world a better place, it would be that we could all just tell who was smarter than whom.

    I didn’t take the time to find the post(s) directly, but it’s there…

  • In my experience, it seems fairly easy to recognize people who are more intelligent than I am in some particular area – they have more knowledge, are quicker to understand new situations, and they make statements or predictions that may not be immediately obvious to me, but are verifiable later. What I have more difficulty doing is recognizing which of two people is the more intelligent (or better informed), if they are both more intelligent (or informed) than I am. If I cannot easily evaluate two different positions, I cannot easily judge which has more merit.

  • rcriii

    Robin, it appears as if you use the word ‘smart’ as a proxy for ability, when in fact (as Greg pointed out) intelligence is only one of a number of traits that add up to a person’s ability. Plus the word ‘smart’ gives the impression of one-dimensionality to something that is surely multi-dimensional.

  • Greg and Rciii, yes, cognitive abilities are multidimensional and in part context specific.

    John, yes, the point is more that for many cognitive abilities, your ability to distinguish levels diminishes above your own level.

    Chuck, nice quote, if we could find it.

  • zzz

    “Robin, it appears as if you use the word ‘smart’ as a proxy for ability,”

    Read more carefully before posting, you’ve got the whole thing backwards. Robin clearly states that better outcomes may or may not reveal intelligence, depending on the specific area of life.

  • I have observed that people seem to be capable of distinguishing intelligence up to around one standard deviation above themselves – anyone smarter than that is just “very smart”. This creates problems when you’re in an argument with someone considerably below you and considerably above part of the audience – e.g., a modern evolutionary biologist arguing with an articulate theologian in front of a college-educated audience.

    But, on this same theory, bona-fide elites should be able to tell if you are smarter than them – they may not know how much smarter you are, but they’ll be able to tell you’re smarter. A hacker should be able to distinguish a superhacker, a mathematician should be able to distinguish a supermathematician.

    It’s the “elites” who are faking it, who have no criterion of discrimination apart from how much people agree with their theories, who will be unable to distinguish.

  • rcriii

    zzz, I did read the post. Robin has more than once posted about ‘smart’ people not doing as well at something as you’d think. Here the thesis seems to be that there are good reasons for smart people to either conceal their ability or stay away from certain aspects of life since their intelligence is not easily (properly?) rewarded.

    I think that the explanation is simpler: 1) intelligence is not one-dimensional and not all the dimensions are useful in any given endeavor. 2) There are more traits that determine success than ‘smarts’.

  • zzz

    Thanks for your clarification, but I still don’t understand how this is a problem. If your field is saddled by elites who cannot tell whether people are productive or not, you’ve got a bigger problem than smart people staying out. Robin’s field is heavily math oriented: presumably a journalism teacher would have no problem grading their students’ writing quality, even though a math-econ paper would leave him stumped.

  • Kyle

    @rcriii — The explanation is even simpler, I think. Intelligence < Practice when it comes to being good at almost anything, including disciplines that seem to be about intelligence.

  • jn

    Maybe I am misreading this, but isn’t this really about the tradeoff between power/control vs effectiveness or productivity?

    All else being equal, elites want to stay elite. But they also recognize that part of their status is tied to their group’s productivity and effectiveness.

    Smart people (even narrowly construed) can aid their group but can also challenge their status. At the margin, they want smart people to become part of the group and aid their productivity without affecting their status.

    In some fields, success is so obvious and so narrowly tied to one dimension that it is pointless to exclude smart people — even those who are otherwise the “wrong” social type.

    In other cases, the markers for eliteness may have bearing on productivity (such as social awareness or stamina) or may simply be markers for in-group status. In the latter case, smarts without in-group markers may lead you to be excluded because the cost to the elites in terms of lowered productivity on the smart dimension is offset by loss on the effectiveness dimension or even on the power dimension. In the worst case, elites would prefer an objectively less productive person on all margins if the loss of productivity were smaller than the gain from excluding a potential rival.

  • jn, the issues you raise exist, but are somewhat besides the point that elites often can’t tell who is how smarter than they.

  • Erik

    Regarding people being less able to distinguish levels of intelligence above their own, there’s a great scene in Good Will Hunting where Will gets tired of explaining a proof to Professor Lambeau, and Lambeau replies:
    “it’s just a handful of people in the world who can tell the difference between you and me. But I’m one of them.”

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