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Smarter Than The Average Bear

Most of you will be far too young to remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character of Yogi Bear, one of whose catchphrases is the title of this week’s blog.  Yogi was often able to get himself out of tricky situations by deploying a mixture of cunning, deceit and quick thinking, summing himself up to his friend Boo-Boo as smarter than average.  David Brooks, in his excellent book ‘The Social Animal’, says that we are all guilty of such overconfidence because, as he puts it, the human mind is an overconfidence machine. 

He adds that the conscious level of the brain gives itself credit for things it really did not do and confabulates tales to create the illusion it controls things it really does not determine.  Apparently, for example, ninety per cent of drivers believe they are above average behind the wheel, ninety-four per cent of college professors think they are above average teachers, ninety per cent of entrepreneurs think that their new business will be a success and ninety-eight per cent of students who take the SAT in America say they have average or above-average leadership skills.

A couple of weeks ago, I started sharing some of David Goodhart’s ideas from his fascinating book ‘Head, Hand, Heart’, which I will continue this week with some of his reflections on intelligence, and how we too often misinterpret and/or misunderstand what we mean by the word.  A good starting point might be the analysis of the American political scientist Charles Murray, quoted by Goodhart, who argues that to equate IQ with human virtue or wisdom or character, or a host of other measures of a person’s value is ridiculous…IQ is equivalent to chip speed, and superior chip speed enables things that inferior chip speed will not enable.  But that is true of almost any human attribute.

It is hard to disagree with Goodhart when he writes that human intelligence and ingenuity are at the core of modern civilisation and will remain so, but it is unintelligent both for individuals and societies to attach too much prestige and reward to just one kind of human aptitude.  Given that intelligence, like wealth, is distributed unevenly, he asks how can we ensure that those blessed with more modest levels of cognitive ability, or who prefer to develop other aptitudes, receive their fair share of dignity and respect, without overly constraining human freedom or discriminating against the intelligent, which is what seems to have happened in many countries in the last couple of generations.

He quotes Polly Mackenzie, a British political commentator, who puts it neatly: ‘There are endless debates about whether ability comes from our genes or the environment in which we were raised.  It doesn’t matter.  The one thing those two factors share is that you have no control over them.  My parents gave me my genes, and they gave me my childhood.  It would be as wrong for me to claim credit for my talents as it would be to let them go to waste.  Talent, or merit, is an obligation as much as a gift.’

The whole premise of Goodhart’s argument is that we have allowed cognitive ability to trump practical and vocational talents when it comes to determining the relative worth of individuals in many modern societies, arguing that no one is likely to do well in exams or rise in an organisation – whether an inner-city gang or a multinational corporation – without a decent measure of general intelligence.  But that is a necessary not a sufficient condition of what one might call general human ‘capability’, which also requires social intelligence, judgement, imagination and so on.  These are qualities that are only partially captured by IQ-type tests or, indeed, exams more generally.

He continues by saying that most of us have no idea of our own IQ or that of the people we work with and know well, but we do have a sense of some people being ‘brighter’ than others.  But it is not obvious that the people we regard as the brightest people in our social circles would also be those with the highest IQs.  Meanwhile, data has shown that someone with an IQ of 130 has a less than two per cent chance of living in poverty, whereas someone with an IQ less than seventy has a twenty-six percent chance.

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget said, ‘Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do’, but unfortunately there is no universally accepted definition of intelligence, though Goodhart cites the following from the American psychologist Linda Gottfredson as popular: ‘Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience.  It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill or test-taking smarts.  Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper comprehension of our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.’

Goodhart makes the point that education in recent times has not played a significant role in boosting social mobility, and indeed may have restricted it, partly because higher education has been so dominated by the middle class and because better-off families can buy extra educational support of various kinds, which is what many of you reading this, and me writing it, are doing, of course.  But while formal qualifications are used by employers as a signal of competence, they seem to be less important for long-term career success than demonstrating capability on the job.

Generally speaking, he continues, high cognitive ability is a desirable attribute, to the point where it might be said to be its own reward.  However, the ability to understand one’s environment and to pick up new skills quickly does not necessarily merit the additional rewards that society has been granting the cognitively able in recent decades.  High intelligence may be a highly desirable attribute, but it is not the only one. 

It does not make anyone a good or likeable or honest or conscientious or compassionate or courageous or contented person.  And yet increasingly parents will go to great lengths to ensure that their children can pass into the graduate class even if they do not have the cognitive ability or personal attributes to properly benefit from a three- or four-year degree course, which Goodhart says is creating an epidemic of square pegs in round holes.

To conclude this week, the author highlights that the ideal that many of us might think of when we consider education in the abstract – say studying medicine, combining vocational and academic learning with a view to an obviously useful and well remunerated professional career – is a very long way from the reality for most people, most of the time.  Many of the academic qualifications that people are working towards have a far more tenuous connection to future employment and are often a form of ‘credentialism’, signalling to employers where you stand relative to others rather than evidence of mastery of complex cognitive skills.

Education can be ‘what is left after you have forgotten everything you were taught’, in the old saying. The problem is this: education is in many circumstances a cultural good and economic investment both for individuals and for society.  But is also a signalling arms race that sorts people into different occupational streams.  It usually makes sense at the individual level to invest in it, but some of the investments can be misallocated at the social level.


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