Valuing intelligence

February 2015

Scott Alexander recently wrote about why you shouldn’t feel bad for not being as smart as other people.

…a comment from last week:

I’m sorry to leave self a self absorbed comment, but reading this really upset me and I just need to get this off my chest… How is a person supposed to stay sane in a culture that prizes intelligence above everything else – especially if, as Scott suggests, Human Intelligence Really Is the Key to the Future – when they themselves are not particularly intelligent and, apparently, have no potential to ever become intelligent? Right now I basically feel like pond scum.

Some people think body weight is biologically/genetically determined. Other people think it’s based purely on willpower – how strictly you diet, how much you can bring yourself to exercise. These people get into some pretty acrimonious debates. … Although there’s a lot of debate over the science here, there seems to be broad agreement on both sides that the more compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position, the position promoted by the kind of people who are really worried about stigma and self-esteem, is that weight is biologically determined.

And the same is true of mental illness. … Once again, the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate is that depression is something like biological, and cannot easily be overcome with willpower and hard work. … The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern.

Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”.

And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.

…I choose to maintain consistency by preserving the belief that overweight people, depressed people, and poor people aren’t fully to blame for their situation–and neither are unintelligent people. It’s accidents of birth all the way down. Intelligence is mostly genetic and determined at birth–and we’ve already determined in every other sphere that “mostly genetic and determined at birth” means you don’t have to feel bad if you got the short end of the stick.

(I don’t want to make the excerpt any longer, but you should really just read it.)

Before I say things about this, I should make a disclaimer. When I talk about “intelligence” here, I’m referring to performance on a blob of cognitive tasks that all seem to correlate with each other. These scores also seem to correlate with various colloquial meanings of “intelligence”–like ability to solve math problems or make puns or, more relevantly for Scott’s commenter, write witty blog comments. The blob also seems to correlate with important life outcomes like income, educational attainment, and so on. We also don’t currently understand these traits well enough to reliably improve them for people, aside from obvious things like not poisoning them. We can teach people how to solve specific classes of math problems or make specific types of puns, but we can’t do anything about the whole correlation-blob.

I’m emphatically not claiming that this intelligence thing has any causal relevance. For instance, a reasonable alternate hypothesis is that the idea of intelligence was made up to oppress people by giving them low scores on it, and oppression also tends to depress people’s other outcomes along many dimensions, hence the correlation. I’m also not claiming that the intelligence thing is fixed; it’s equally plausible that we just don’t understand how to teach it well yet. But regardless of how these questions resolve, it’s definitely true that there are a lot of people who end up below where they want to be on this blob of correlated metrics, and we don’t really understand yet how they could improve.

OK, so back to Scott’s post: it seems like you don’t actually have that much control over how well you do on this “intelligence” thing, so you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people who lucked out on it and feel bad.

Ruthie pointed out that this doesn’t really do much for you if you’re sad because you wish you were smarter. That’s more of an emotional thing. If your social groups value intelligence, then being told that your intelligence is an accident of birth can hurt more than being told that you should just work harder–because there’s an undertone of, “you can’t change how intelligent you are… and therefore society will never value you.” Of course that’s not what people like Scott mean, but the undercurrent is there just the same.

Scott’s essay was addressed to people who felt bad because they felt less smart than their social groups. But it might have been better addressed to people who didn’t feel that way.

If most overweight people don’t have much control over their weight, you don’t just tell overweight people that it’s okay because they can’t help it. You do that, because it’s better than the alternative, but that’s not how you make things better for them. You make things better by getting the media to stop making physical attractiveness so important, and stop making weight such an important part of physical attractiveness–by generally creating social spaces where overweight people can go without feeling like their personal worth is connected to something they can’t change.

Similarly, if Scott’s commenter feels worthless for not being particularly intelligent, you shouldn’t just tell them “don’t worry, there’s nothing you can do about it.” That’s some cold comfort! You need to fix the problem where they keep getting told they’re worthless, too. You need to fix the part where people are valued for things that aren’t under their control.

But for something like intelligence, that’s really hard.

The reason is that “achieving personal goals” is one of the parts of the massive correlation-blob that makes up “intelligence.” In fact, some people define intelligence as “an agent’s ability to achieve goals in a wide range of environments.” Well, most people have a goal of feeling valued. So even if we stop connecting people’s personal worth directly to their intelligence, smarter people are still going to have an easier time being valued through whatever channels we replace it with.

Suppose we start valuing people for being kind, instead of intelligent. (I wish!) Kindness is under your own control, right? Well, sort of. But people who are better at thinking up clever ways to be publicly kind will still be better at currying social favor.

If we start valuing honesty, then people will develop goals of being honest. And the people who are better at figuring out uncomfortable truths to tell will come out ahead. And so on.

In fact, this is already happening to some extent. If you asked people whether they think raw cognitive ability is intrinsically valuable, I’m sure most of them would say no. It just so happens that a lot of the stuff they do value, like writing good blog posts or having a successful career or even making funny jokes, are also part of the correlation-blob. So it seems pretty hard to stop the lion’s share of social respect from going to people who won the cognitive lottery–harder than it seems to be for, say, gender or race or physical appearance, and those are quite hard enough.

Unfortunately, I don’t currently see a great solution. The best we can do is try to figure out what really took someone a lot of effort, not just what seems like it would be hard for you. And that’s basically the conclusion that Scott comes to about his own self-esteem:

And this is part of why it’s important for me to believe in innate ability, and especially differences in innate ability. If everything comes down to hard work and positive attitude, then God has every right to ask me “Why weren’t you Srinivasa Ramanujan?” or “Why weren’t you Elon Musk?”

If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

This seems like a gratifyingly low bar.

We just have to remember that we need to value the non-Ramanujans–and the non-Scotts–too. That’s the part that actually makes things better for people.

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Kiplingesque Boots

The real solution here is to provide people with the choice of changing their intelligence (up or down) if they so wish. But that seems a way off.

In the meantime, any proper treatment must allow us to celebrate outstanding individuals, even their accomplishments are significantly genetic. I am impressed by great basketball players. I am impressed by Scott Alexander. It would be too onerous to require me to lavish equal attention and praise on every single person who makes a comparable effort.


Tom Ash

Nice post. I agree that we should value intelligence (in the sense of g) less; I value it less than many others I know. I think you may be overstating the effect intelligence has when we value kindness and honesty - I think being “better at thinking up clever ways to be publicly kind” gets swamped by actually being kind, and that consistently being kind is a fine approach available to non-intelligent people.



“The best we can do is try to figure out what really took someone a lot of effort, not just what seems like it would be hard for you.”

Along those lines, the only runner that can give less than a maximum effort in a competitive race is the winner. I was unhappy with my lower intelligence than others for awhile, but I realized I only had to maximize what I can do given my constraints. This is freeing, in a way, but you still have to be honest and not over-define your constraints.

Also, many people that are intelligent by more narrow definitions like IQ or technical abilities often overlook simple solutions. Or they overlook opportunities to organize and influence people in ways that can have a large impact.

Although it’s probably pop-science, this might be of interest: