Do brains really matter?

Dr. James Joyner poses a series of interesting questions about the real world effect of a person’s IQ and how likely they are to succeed (or fail) based on that criteria. He examines a recent Business Insider editorial which seeks to debunk a thesis from Malcolm Gladwell which argues precisely the opposite. Gladwell contends that, above a fairly garden variety intellect, anyone can become good at virtually anything, “given 10,000 hours of practice.” From the BI article:

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.”

… 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.

Joyner cites a rebuttal from Dave Schuler who argues that cognitive development is only one element of a much larger package. The potential for success is certainly aided by a powerful intellect, but in the real world, other traits including physical development, social skills, and even attractiveness all play a role.

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.

I’m not sure if there was ever a time when massive intellect was any sort of guarantor of success or even represented a significant advantage. (Keeping in mind that I’m speaking of those who do not suffer from any inherent developmental disability.) In the United States, the average IQ is generally regarded to be 98. Or, with allowance for statistical variations, we could say it’s just about 100. As Schuler notes, the population will generally be comprised of roughly one half of Americans who fall somewhere in the middle of the 90-110 band. Another quarter will fall on the extreme low end below that and 25% will fall somewhere in the upper strata. So are all of the very successful people in that last category? Or even a significant majority of them?

Anecdotal evidence would seem to run against the idea. Eli Manning and his brother Peyton are widely regarded as some of the top quarterbacks in the NFL and receive salaries in the millions of dollars per year. Top flight athletes to be sure, but I’ve seen no indication that either one of them is about to solve the unified force theory. The Real Housewives of (insert city name here) all seem to be making a fair dollar. I even read something recently suggesting that the guys who created those “Jackass” movies own their own island someplace.

Meanwhile, some of the arguably biggest brains in the country labor away in university laboratories trying to cure cancer in rats, improve the yield rates in engines or find a faster way for you to download the aforementioned Jackass videos to your Android phone. A few of them will come up with some breakthrough and possibly realize great rewards, but the vast majority will toil away in obscurity and possibly not even earn as much as the guy who knows how to fix your heating and air conditioning systems when they break down.

So is this an indication that we, as a society, don’t place a high enough value on intelligence? Do we focus on attributes which shouldn’t be quite so important? Or do people fail or succeed based on something else… perhaps the individual’s innate drive to succeed and their social skills in winning people over? It’s not just a world for the pretty… I don’t think anyone ever accused Donald Trump of having movie star looks. But it’s obviously also not simply a world for those with an IQ in excess of 150.

IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: I had begun preparing this draft yesterday, but since then we have received some truly tragic news. Dr. James Joyner’s wife, Kimberly Webb Joyner, suddenly passed away in her sleep last night at the age of only 41. James is now dealing not only with his grief but the looming challenges of suddenly becoming a single father to two daughters, ages 3 and five months respectively. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers. You can leave a supportive comment at the link above should you wish to.