Tag Archives: Intelligence

Status Hypocrisy

Humans (and some other animals) recognize two kinds of status: good and bad. Good status is “prestige” while bad status is “dominance.” Here is Trump today saying the US wants to be high status in the world, but only via good status:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. (more)

Many animals have a local “pecking order” set by winners of pair-wise physical fights. In some animals, rank is also influenced via prestige elements. For example, babbler birds rise in rank by doing good things for their local group, such as by sharing food and warning against predators. These things count for rank even when gained via violence, such as by fighting other birds for the best places to look out for predators, and by forcing food down the throat of other birds.

Human foragers have strong norms against using or threatening force, and even against bragging about such serious abilities. Hunters may exchange arrows to disguise who deserves credit for good hunts. But foragers are okay with communities having a shared sense of who are better sources of advice, and who are better to emulate and associate with. And it can be okay, in play mode, to brag about play abilities like singing or joking. In The Secret Of Our Success, Joseph Henrich says human cultural evolution was promoted by our tendency to copy behaviors of prestigious people.

Today we tend to say that our leaders have prestige, while their leaders have dominance. That is, their leaders hold power via personal connections and the threat and practice of violence, bribes, sex, gossip, and conformity pressures. Our leaders, instead, mainly just have whatever abilities follow from our deepest respect and admiration regarding their wisdom and efforts on serious topics that matter for us all. Their leaders more seek power, while ours more have leadership thrust upon them. Because of this us/them split, we tend to try to use persuasion on us, but force on them, when seeking to to change behaviors.

You can see this split in typical motives of heroes and villains in fiction, and in how such characters treat their subordinates. It also appears often in war propaganda, such as in accusations about different leadership styles of Trump and Clinton in the US last election.

Firm bosses today tend to be reluctant to give direct orders to subordinates, and prefer a general impression that they have their position mainly because of how much everyone respects their wisdom and effort. Bosses also prefer the impression that their main task is to collect information, apply wisdom, and make good decisions in the firm interest. Subordinates often go along with this story, as they don’t like to publicly accept domination. Employees can just conveniently decide that they respect their boss, and are persuaded by his or her arguments. And firms pay extra for the pretty dynamic bosses to which employees less mind submitting, even if those are worse at making key decisions.

Modern folk often don’t understand how the ancients could have tolerated not having democracy, as we us tell ourselves today that democracy is why we are not dominated by leaders. But while the ancients saw rival nations as under the thumb of tyrants, they themselves had kings whose virtues proved that they deserved their position. And we today look away from evidence that our leaders win elections via illicit means (such as personal connections etc.); our elected leaders are often far from the most prestigious people available. Even if we see most politicians as corrupt, we see our personal politicians as much less so. US residents look away from evidence that the US is not just high status in the world due to its good advice and general helpfulness; the US also uses force, bribes, etc.

Clearly, while there is some fact of the matter about how much a person gains their status via licit or illicit means, there is also a lot of impression management going on. We like to give others the impression that we personally mainly want prestige in ourselves and our associates, and that we only grant others status via the prestige they have earned. But let me suggest that, compared to this ideal, we actually want more dominance in ourselves and our associates than we like to admit, and we submit more often to dominance.

In the following, I’ll offer three lines of evidence for this claim. First consider that we like to copy the consumer purchases of people that we envy, but not of people we admire for being “warm” and socially responsible. I suggest that relative to us, the latter group has prestige while the former has dominance.

Second, consider the fact that when our bosses or presidents retire and leave office, their legitimate prestige should not have diminished much. That is, such people have about the same wisdom and good advice, and they remain as useful a model for copying behavior. Yet others usually show far less interest in associating with such retirees. This suggests that what people really want in associating with bosses is their dominance powers, not their prestigious advice.

For my third line of evidence, consider our differing preferences for short vs. long term mates. We are much more publicly associated with our long term mates, and so we naturally care more about what other people think of them. Their prestige will bleed over onto us. In contrast, short term mating is often done in secret. Thus we should care more about prestige in long term mates, and dominance in short term mates, even if we don’t admit this consciously.

For short term mates, humans seem to mainly care about physical attractiveness. This is in contrast to long term mates and non-sexual short term associates. Women also care about men having a deep voice, and if men are relatively attractive, women like them to show off luxury goods. Women may like creative intelligence in men, but while we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces, that just doesn’t much influence how attractive they seem.

While there is a lot of complexity in mating preferences, and we still don’t understand it all, it seems to me that one important component is that for long term mates we more care about prestige features that are good for the group, but for short term mates, we care more about dominance features that are more directly useful to us personally. Physical attractiveness (and a deep voice) shows off capacities for violence and fertility, both of which are useful powers.

Overall intelligence can be good for the group, but for our ancestors it was much less useful to individuals. This may be part of why IQ matters more for national than individual income. We humans may have long known that smarts is good for our groups, and yet made it less of a priority in our selfish choices of associates.

Added 21Jan: The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

Added 22Jan: This can help explain why smart & sincere tend to go together.

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Hive Mind

Some people like murder mystery novels. I much prefer intellectual mysteries like that in Garett Jones’ new book Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own:

Over a decade ago I began my research into how IQ matters for nations. I soon found that the strong link between average IQ and national productivity couldn’t be explained with just the conventional finding that IQ predicts higher wages. IQ apparently mattered far more for nations than for individuals. In my early work, I estimated that IQ mattered about six times more for nations than for individuals: your nation’s IQ mattered so much more than your own. That puzzle, that paradox of IQ, is what set me on my intellectual journey. …

I’ll lay out five major channels for how IQ can pay off more for nations than for you as an individual: Continue reading "Hive Mind" »

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Seeking Super Factors

In a factor analysis, one takes a large high-dimensional dataset and finds a low dimensional set of variables that can explain as much as possible of the total variation in that dataset. A big advantage of factor analysis is that it doesn’t require much theoretical knowledge about the nature of the variables in the data or their relations – factors are mostly determined directly by the data.

Factor analysis has had some big successes in helping us to understand how humans differ. As many people know, intelligence is the main factor explaining variation in cognitive test performance, ideology is the main factor explaining variations in political positions, and personality types explain much of the variation in stable attitudes and temperament. These factors have allowed us to greatly advance our understanding of intelligence, ideology, and personality, even while remaining ignorant of their fundamental causes and natures.

However, people vary in far more ways than intelligence, ideology, and personality, and factor analyses have been applied to many of these other human feature categories. For example, there have been factors analyses of jobs, brands, faces, body shape, gait, accent, diet, clothing, writing styleleisure behavior, friendship networks, sleep habitsphysical health, mortality, demography, national cultures, and zip codes.

As my last post on media genre factors showed, factors found in different feature categories are often substantially correlated with one another. This suggests that if we put together a huge super-dataset describing many individual people in as many ways as possible, a factor analysis of this dataset may find important new super-factors that span many of these features domains. Such super-factors would be promising candidates to use in a wide range of social research, and social policy.

Now it remains logically possible that these super-factors will end up being simple linear combinations of the factors that we have already found in each of these feature categories. Maybe we already know most of what there is to know about how humans vary. But I’d bet strongly and heavily against this. The rate at which we have been learning new things about how humans vary doesn’t remotely suggest we’ve run out of new big things to learn. Yes, merely knowing the super-factors isn’t the same as understanding their origins. But just as we’ve seen with factor analysis in more specific areas, knowing the main factors can be a big help.

So I’d guess that the super-factors found in a super dataset of human details will be revolutionary developments. We will afterward see uncovering them as a seminal milestone in our progress in understanding human variation. A Nobel prize worthy level of seminality. All it will take is lots of tedious work to collect a super dataset, and then do some straightforward number crunching. A quest awaits; who will rise to the challenge?

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Intelligence Futures

For many purposes, such as when choosing if to admit someone to a college, we care about both temporary features, who they are now, and permanent features, who they have the ultimate potential to become. One of those features is intelligence; we care about how smart they are now, and about how smart they have the potential to become.

A standard result in intelligence research is that intelligence as measured late in life, such as at age fifty, is a much better indicator of ultimate potential than is intelligence measured at early ages. That is, environments have a stronger influence over measured intelligence of the young, relative to the old.

So if you want a measure of an ultimate potential, such as to use in college admissions, then instead of using current tests like SAT scores, you’d do better to use a good prediction of future test scores, such as predictions of related tests at age fifty.

Now of course colleges could try to do this prediction themselves. They could collect a dataset of people where they have late life test scores and also many possible early predictors of those future test scores, and then fit a statistical model to all that. But such data is hard to collect, this approach limits you to predictors available in your dataset, and the world changes, so that models that work on old data may not predict new data.

Let me propose a prediction market solution: create prediction markets on late life test scores. To make sure people try hard enough later, collect a fund to pay out to the person later in proportion to their late life test score. Then open (and subsidize) a market today in that future test score, and post any associated info that this person will allow. Speculators could then use that info, and anything else they could figure out, to guess the future test score. Finally, use market prices as estimate of future test scores, and thus of ultimate potential, in college admissions.

This approach could of course also be used by employers and other individuals or organizations that care about potential. A single market on a future test score could inform many audiences at once. And this approach could also be used for any other measures of potential where late life measures are more reliable than early life measures.

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Rude research

Bryan Caplan says intelligence research is very unpopular because it looks so bad to call half of people stupider than average, let alone stupid outright. Calling people stupid is rude.

But if this is the main thing going on, many other kinds of research should be similarly hated. It’s rude to call people lazy, ugly bastards whose mothers wouldn’t love them. Yet there is little hostility regarding research into conscientiousness, physical attractiveness, parental marriage status, or personal relationships. At least as far as I can tell. Is there? Or what else is going on with intelligence?


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Whence Better Brains?

The cover story of the July Scientific American is on brain physics. It persuades me that raw brain hardware was more important than I’d thought in our history.  Here is my current best guess on brain history.

Across diverse species we see strong convergence in brain organization, especially conditional on brain size. Species differ more in their brain hardware components, and their energy sources. For example, primates have innovative cell designs allowing higher neuron density. Given access to such cells, primates could afford to evolve bigger brains, and then bigger pair-bond-based social groups.

Humans found a way to use big primate brains to support big-group far-traveling long-life versions which could access richer energy sources, which in turn supported large energy-hungry brains. Humans found a way to use those huge old social brains to support robust accumulation of culture, which is our main advantage over other primates. This was probably supported by only minor changes in brain organization.

While the brains of smarter humans today may use a better set of long term connections, probably most of their advantage comes from using more energy-intensive brain hardware. So it probably wasn’t until our recent cheap energy era that high IQ humans gained large advantages. The tendency 0f smarter humans to choose lower fertility lowers their advantage today.

Many quotes from that article: Continue reading "Whence Better Brains?" »

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BHTV with Brian Christian

Just four weeks after my last episode, here is a new (63 min.) Blogging Heads TV episode, this time with Brian Christian, author of the new celebrated (NYT, New Yorker) book The Most Human Human:

Christian describes competing in a Turing test to be seen as more human than rival chat-bots, and he offers his approach in that contest as a general philosophy of life: we should all try to live our lives to be hard for machines to mimic.

Conversations that demure, dodge, lighten mood, change subject, “shouldn’t be allowed to pass as real human conversation.” He is “contemptuously unwilling to act like a bot” when arguing, by just responding to the last thing the other person said. He dislikes nightclubs where you can’t hear others well, and the cautious and structured styles that make “the language of some salesmen, seducers, and politicians so half-human.” He much prefers people interrupting each other to politely taking turns.

Christian hates customer service systems that make agents follow scripts, won’t give agents much discretion, and keep switching who each customer deals with. “Fragmentary humanity isn’t humanity.” He also dislikes “micromanagement” and structure work more generally, celebrating architects who refuse to change their practice to scale it up to more customers, and actors who only perform a play once so their acting is maximally fresh. Christian prefers academic domains with fuzzy or broad boundaries, real over simulated images, painting subjects that won’t sit still, flexible role playing over games with clear rules.

So is he right? Often my personal preferences do lean in Christian’s direction; he and I share many tastes. But I just can’t see why one should try especially to be hard for machines to mimic, over and above the other usual reasons for our actions. For example, yes scripted customer service agents can be less pleasant to deal with, and are sometimes frustratingly inflexible, but they are generally cheaper and easier to manage. Over the coming decades it remains an open question how much customers will be willing to pay for more “human” service. If customers end up preferring services, I can’t say they’d be obviously wrong.

More generally, the vast wealth of our industrial world comes in part from our willingness to structure our work lives more than our ancestors would tolerate, following the many scripts and procedures that Christian finds distasteful. We constantly choose between more personal flexibility and the rewards from fitting into larger structures. I don’t feel qualified to tell people they are systematically choosing too little flexibility, and I don’t see Christian as being any more qualified.

In the video, I presented this argument to Christian and he didn’t seem to have much of a response. In fact, he didn’t seem to have considered the question before – it seems none of the many reviewers and interviewers who celebrated his book challenged him on his main thesis. Apparently, it is rare for an interviewer to directly inquire into the main argument for such a book’s thesis. While books like The Most Human Human give the appearance of arguing for a thesis, that is apparently just a thin cover for other offerings – few ever engage them as arguments.

And admittedly, such books do offer long lists of fascinating facts, a pleasant experience listening to an articulate voice, a way to affiliate with an impressive person, and an excuse to talk knowingly with friends about important and interesting sounding topics. What more could a reader want?

Added 3Apr: It seems the comments at BHTV are equally divided between those who think I’m obviously right, and those who think Brian is.  I’m always fascinated by this sort of situation.

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Play Talk Still Tells

Many animals have a concept of “play.” At times and places where they feel safe, friendly associates practice important motions, like chasing or fighting, but try to avoid any big effects – they retract their claws, pull their punches, etc. Play is an important way for young animals to learn how to act like old ones. Humans retain youthful styles longer into life, and so we play all through life.

Humans also developed language, which enabled stronger social rules about forbidden behaviors. For example, not only are you not supposed to kill associates, you are supposed to punish those who do kill, and those who refuse to punish killers, etc. Language let humans tell others about rule violations, to recruit a wider circle of enforcers than just direct witnesses.

Humans also tend to have rules about what you shouldn’t say. For example, foragers not only forbid domination, at least between families, they also forbid talk that supports domination. So foragers are typically not supposed to brag, threaten, or give orders. The more ancient concept of play, however, let humans evade such rules on forbidden talk. Let me explain.

Just as there is play chasing, play fighting, or even play mating, there is also play talk. Like other kinds of play, play talk only makes sense among friendly associates, when they are in a relaxed and unthreatened mood. Play talk should take the general forms of regular talk, but with claws retracted, punches pulled, etc., and everyone acting relaxed and unthreatened. Play talk should not be directly on serious topics with large important consequences, where people get stressed or angry.

With a little indirection, however, even play talk can communicate on serious important topics. For example, while social rules might forbid directly propositioning others for sex, people often communicate an interest in sex by joking about it in the right way. As long as there are other plausible interpretations of their words and actions, it can be hard for others to accuse them of violating the social rules.

It is easier to use play talk to evade talk rules if groups develop a very local culture and language – particular words and associations that have particular meanings due to the local history. This makes it harder to clearly convince outsiders that something illicit was communicated. It can also be easier to use this trick at the expense of folks who are eager to show their loyalty to the local group – publicly accusing another group member of violating talk rules ends the play mode and risks seeming less friendly to the group, especially if the local group isn’t very vested in that particular rule. Finally, it is easier for smarter people to talk indirectly so that they understand each other, but outsiders do not (achieve common knowledge that they) understand.

Humans thus developed sophisticated capacities for using play talk to indirectly communicate on serious topics. We became very adept at and fond of playfully talking on two levels at once, especially when the more hidden level talks about or embodies rule violations. We are so fond of this sort of activity and ability, in fact, that we often consider a surplus of it the main reason we like or love someone, and a deficit of it almost a definition of being inhuman. And such rule-evading abilities were so important that we developed ginormous brains to support them.

I am talking of course about humor, and sense of humor. We cherish our friends and lovers for making us laugh, and we think inhuman robots and despots couldn’t have a good sense of humor. We not only playfully talk illicitly via humor, we also play at humor, practicing this general capacity through endless variations of stories where a hidden often-rule-violating meaning is just barely revealed to wise listeners. Homo hypocritus hones humor. This is who we are.

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Dumb Farmers

Apparently the foraging life is more mentally demanding than is the farming life.  Brain size rose during the forager era, but fell during the farming era. During the industry era brain size is rising again, yet another way we are returning to forager ways with increasing wealth.

Combined with social brain theory, that our brains are big to deal with complex social worlds, suggests farmer social worlds are less complex.  Perhaps this is because stronger town social norms better discourage hypocritical norm evasion.

The data: Continue reading "Dumb Farmers" »

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Smart Beliefs

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

More here.  The author interprets these findings:

More intelligent individuals should be better able to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily novel (but not evolutionarily familiar) entities and situations. …. There has been accumulating evidence for this. …

  1. Individuals’ tendency to respond to TV characters as if they were real friends … appears to be limited to those with below-median intelligence. …
  2. Net of age, race, sex, education, marital history, and religion, less intelligent individuals have more children than more intelligent individuals, even though they do not want to do so. …
  3. More intelligent individuals stay healthier and live longer … [but] general intelligence does not appear to affect health and longevity in sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the health threats and dangers are more evolutionarily familiar. …
  4. Criminals on average have lower intelligence than the general population … Much of what we call interpersonal crime today, such as murder, assault, robbery, and theft, were probably routine means of intrasexual male competition in the ancestral environment, … [and] the institutions that control, detect, and punish criminal behavior in society today—the police, the courts, and the prisons—are all evolutionarily novel. …

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.  Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

Our ancestors … could have attributed [an ambiguous situation] to intentional forces when they are in fact caused by unintentional forces … or they could have attributed them to unintentional forces when they were in fact caused by intentional forces. … [The] evolutionary origin of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may stem from such an innate bias to commit Type I errors rather than Type II errors. … Out of more than 1,500 distinct cultures … only 19 contain any references to atheism. …

A species-typical degree of polygyny correlates with the extent of sexual dimorphism in size. … On this scale, humans are mildly polygynous, not as polygynous as gorillas, but not strictly monogamous like gibbons. Consistent with this comparative evidence, … an overwhelming majority of traditional cultures in the world (83.39 percent) practice polygyny with only 16.14 percent practicing monogamy and 0.47 percent practicing polyandry.

The results are interesting and worth pondering, but it is still far from clear to me why the modern world should push smart folks in these directions.  Is it that smart folks are more open minded and willing to adopt new beliefs?  If so, why do they differ only on some topics but not on others?  Is it that some beliefs are newly rewarded in the modern world, and smart folks are faster on the uptake?  This makes some sense of monogamy values, since the farming revolution has preferred that institution (longer term investments, easier to hold women).  But how does this story make sense of smart folks being more liberal, atheist, or vegetarian?

HT Ajay Menon

Added 11a: Folks, these beliefs cannot credibly signal smarts if dumb folks can hold them as easily.  Perhaps dumb folks cannot defend these beliefs as ably, but dumb folks cannot defend any belief as ably.  So credibly signal smarts via defending such beliefs, it would have to be that one’s smarts shone more clearly when defending these beliefs, vs. when defending other beliefs on the same topic.

Could these be more far-mode beliefs, and smarties tend to think more far?

Added 28Feb: Apparently this source has questionable reliability.  So I won’t try so hard to explain his odd results.

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