Prestige Matters More For Smarts

There are many kinds of attractive attributes of people.  Some of these attributes, such as height, youth, beauty, or strength, are relatively easy for most anyone to observe.  Other attributes, such as cleverness, insight, or artistic judgment, are harder to observe.  In particular, people who have such hard-to-see attributes can usually better discern those attributes in others. 

If this were the end of it, hard-to-see attributes would just be less valuable, all else equal, in attracting mates and allies.  After all, hard-to-see attributes would then only be useful in attracting people with similar abilities, and those similar others would on average have more options.

But this analysis misses the possibilities of prestige and status.  Social institutions can let people translate their hard-to-see abilities into much easier to see prestige and status.  For example, other smart people might certify you as smart via an award that everyone can see.  So we should expect people whose best abilities are hard-to-see to focus more than most on achieving prestige, while those whose abilities are easier for all to see to focus more on just directly showing off their abilities.

This roughly explains, I think, an important part of the variation in who cares more versus less about degrees, awards, etc.  From a conversation with Helen Yang.

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  • OK, I’m with you on degrees, but awards? It seems to me the awards that are most cared-about are the Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, etc., which are competed for by people who in part are judged on artistic ability, but are also judged on physical attractiveness.

  • asd

    I always thought that dumb people cared more about awards and degrees.

  • This is an example of how certification matters more in areas of trade where quality is harder to assess – e.g. health care, car repairs, environmental effects of production, other post-experience goods.

  • Jef Allbright

    My experience over decades of working with some very smart people (but not so much in academia) has been quite the opposite. There’s a tier 1 composed of those somewhat higher than average intelligence, who tend to play for recognition and exploit opportunities to put down those in tier 0 as if to distinguish their own marginal superiority. Then there’s the roughly 3-sigma group who, realizing through painful lonely experience that what matters most to them can’t and won’t be appreciated by most others, seek not broad but rather the rare *meaningful* recognition of their talent.

  • Jef and asd, some of what you report can probably be accounted for by countersignaling.

  • salacious

    Acquiring degrees and other intelligence related prestige symbols requires other attributes in addition to intelligence. You need drive, organization, a good work ethic and (some) interpersonal skills. Not everyone in Jef’s second tier is going to have all these qualities. Credential seekers could be seeking to validate these attributes as well–not just intelligence, but competence, the ability to apply intelligence to some arbitrary task. An incredibly smart, yet absent minded genius is, as a general rule, less useful than a slightly dumber guy who has his shit together.

    • Lissette

      Salacious……Tru dat!

  • Peter, Oscars etc. are clearly based on more than looks.

    Katja and Rob, yes that is a similar effect.

    salacious, yes of course every signal is of a complex bundle of features.

    asd, Jef, Paul, no doubt there is some countersignaling, but also lots of overestimation of relevant own abilities.

  • I would think that asd’s point is the same as Robin Hanson’s. People who are as smart as you (or smarter) can tell how smart you are; less intelligent people cannot. If you are above-average, the majority of the population has some vague notion that you have brain, but differences in degree are all gone. You presumably will want things from the mass of the population that is unable to recognize your brilliance. You get those letters after your name so that they will care and give you proper deference.

    This is probably most relevant a couple of standard deviations out. If you are one deviation above average, “smart” is about as specific as you want it to get, because the majority of above-average people are above you. At two deviations, you are smarter than the majority of people who are smarter than the majority; you need some signal for the unwashed masses that you are Much Better, not just Better, so that they do not give equal weight to the views of those who are merely “smart.” And then you tier up a few times, and the 1-in-a-million person often has trouble communicating with the million, so the signal is not helping him much except to point out to the 1-in-a-thousands that he deserves more grant funding. See Jef Allbright’s comment.

    Add or subtract some of the pomposity or condescension there based on whether people are recognizing your genius or just the preening of that pretentious jerk over there.

  • Sorry if this is rather off topic – but a big welcome to Peter Norvig! Please stick around – to give the residents a chance to pick your brains 😉

  • Well, of course the prize/award for the really smart that even the supposedly humble sigma 5 types crave is the Nobel, and all its vicissitudes, although there is the occasional exception among this crowd who remains humble, or at least is smart enough to put on a good act of doing so, :-).

    Otherwise, I would tend to agree that the sorts of people who make big deals about their titles and degrees (I am Herr Doctor Doktor Professor!!!) tend not to be at the highest level, trying too hard to prove that they are. The games that do get played at those higher levels tend to be a bit more subtle…

  • noel

    Your social institutions must be run by much smarter people than my social institutions.

  • The answer to your question is obvious, of course people who have a broader perception of reality and how it affects them are going to be more concerned about aquiring the advantages that reality can provide them.

  • Zubon, good summary.