Dr. Helen

Does the Nation's IQ Matter More Than Your Own?

“Yes,” says a new book I am reading by Garett Jones called Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. From the book:

Over the last few decades, economists and psychologists have quietly documented the many ways in which a person’s IQ matters. But, research suggests that a nation’s IQ matters so much more.

As Garett Jones argues in Hive Mind, modest differences in national IQ can explain most cross-country inequalities. Whereas IQ scores do a moderately good job of predicting individual wages, information processing power, and brain size, a country’s average score is a much stronger bellwether of its overall prosperity.

Drawing on an expansive array of research from psychology, economics, management, and political science, Jones argues that intelligence and cognitive skill are significantly more important on a national level than on an individual one because they have “positive spillovers.” On average, people who do better on standardized tests are more patient, more cooperative, and have better memories. As a result, these qualities—and others necessary to take on the complexity of a modern economy—become more prevalent in a society as national test scores rise. What’s more, when we are surrounded by slightly more patient, informed, and cooperative neighbors we take on these qualities a bit more ourselves. In other words, the worker bees in every nation create a “hive mind” with a power all its own. Once the hive is established, each individual has only a tiny impact on his or her own life.

Jones makes the case that, through better nutrition and schooling, we can raise IQ, thereby fostering higher savings rates, more productive teams, and more effective bureaucracies.

Honestly, given the incompetent leaders we have these days who are constantly trying to impress with how “smart” and educated they are, I’m not sure I buy this premise. Are high IQ people more patient, informed and cooperative? Not necessarily. Often, “smart” people are dumb when it comes to politics and dealing with common sense day to day issues that people have. And so-called smart people often make dumb mistakes. In an article in the New Yorker, writer Jonah Lehrer discusses the thinking errors that smart people often make:

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

The philosopher, it turns out, got it backward. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.

So, if we have high IQ smart leaders with thinking errors caused by mental shortcuts (like thinking that Isis is contained!), then we are likely to have more ineffective bureaucracies and policies, not more effective ones. Individuals with high IQs can often do amazing things and countries with high IQs can often do stupid things. IQ isn’t everything when it comes to good and fair nations. There are other qualities that may be as important or more so than IQ, though intelligence is important.