Tag Archives: intelligence

David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” (REVIEW, UPDATED)

The Boston Globe reviews Brooks’ Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life: “The outward mind, according to Brooks, focuses on the power of the individual; the inner mind highlights the bonds among people. Those bonds have become frayed in recent decades, he argues, and need rebuilding if we are to thrive as individuals and as a society.

“ ‘The unconscious is impulsive, emotional, sensitive, and unpredictable. It has its shortcomings. It needs supervision. But it can be brilliant. It’s capable of processing blizzards of data and making daring creative leaps. Most of all, it is also wonderfully gregarious. Your unconscious, that inner extrovert, wants you to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing.’ ”  (Boston Globe)  Brooks suggests that the unconscious is more important to determining our actions than the conscious.

“Some groups are far better than others at inculcating functional norms and social skills. Children from disorganized, unstable communities have a much harder time acquiring the discipline to succeed in life. And a famous experiment conducted around 1970 demonstrated that the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition of receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life: ‘The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds. . . . Twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and 30 years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.’ ” (NY Times)

The WSJ suggests that it is directionally correct (and that non-cognitive skills may be 75% of the action), but in fictionalizing research into its novels two characters (Erica and Harold), it strays from some of the strict limits of the underlying research.

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks—as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn’t tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.  This is a chronic problem…[t]he first study on a topic is rarely the last word.

…The narrative [in The Social Animal] begins with Erica taking a job with a consulting firm of wonks who show off their big brains by citing their favorite equations and debating esoteric trivia at staff meetings. They hire mainly on the basis of intelligence but never develop lasting, profitable relationships with clients. Once Erica figures this out, she leaves to start her own company.

If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that …[t]he brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But…] in reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: “Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes.” [Chabris notes that Brooks in relying on an argument made by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers that IQ attendance at Harvard or MIT can’t predict who will win Nobels, encounters problems that this research is based on] “tiny sample sizes, the shaky assumption that prize juries (and elite universities) make decisions based only on merit, and the focus on the tails of a distribution (here, the highest extremes of intelligence and academic achievement), which is the method guaranteed to tell you the least about the characteristics that matter across the whole range of human ability. To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can’t pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

…The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of “noncognitive” skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.  Even if differences in intelligence explain 25% of the differences among people in how well they perform at work (a much better estimate than the low-ball 4% cited by Mr. Brooks), there is still three times as much territory left to be mapped out. Surely that’s plenty of space for researchers to investigate the role of social acumen, mindset, culture, self-control and much else. A thousand flowers can bloom.

See also David Brooks’ humorous TED talk on this topic, relating his talk to everything from politicians, to school reform, to financial reform, to the war in Iraq. He discusses why the rational world has trumped the social and emotional world at great cost.  He talks about how we are deeply social animals, and formed out of relationships with each other (mentioning the importance of “social capital.”)  To succeed in life, Brooks believes we need mindsight (empathy into what others are thinking), equipoise (serenity in reading our overconfidence and biases), metus (sensitivity to the physical environment), sympathy (ability to work within face-to-face groups through non-verbal communication), blending (a new fusion of two different ideas), and limerince (the ability to find moments of transcendence).

See Guardian article “What’s the big idea?: David Brooks’s theories on society were fashionable 200 years ago, he tells Stuart Jeffries. So why are British politicians such fans of his new book?

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Intelligence and social capital

Flickr photo by aylaujp

Flickr photo by aylaujp

Jason Richwine had a recent post on The American blog (“A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma“) suggesting that the answer to the short-term tensions Robert Putnam has observed, between diversity and immigration and levels of civic engagement, has a solution: admit smarter immigrants.

First, a clarification…Jason Richwine is incorrect in asserting that Robert Putnam was unclear about whether to share these findings.  We shared an early take on this finding immediately after we conducted the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey.

I disagree with Jason”s conclusion;  since education is generally a stronger predictor of levels of civic engagement than raw intelligence, we could still admit less educated immigrants who got educated over time in the U.S.  and have the immigrants still be highly civicly engaged.  Moreover, the lower civic engagement that Robert Putnam discussed in “E Pluribus Unum” was not a compositional effect (a consequence of having more immigrants who were less educated), but a consequence of the diversity within communities, so admitting more educated immigrants wouldn’t have offset that effect.  Nonetheless, his blog post did surface some interesting papers that I hadn’t seen before.  Richwine asserts: “Various survey data indicate that IQ is an important and independent predictor of voting, membership in various social organizations, daily newspaper reading, and tolerance of free speech rights.”

The backup for his assertion comes from:

1)  Seth Hauser, “Education, Ability, and Civic Engagement in the Contemporary United StatesSocial Science Research 29, 556–582 (2000).  Hauser found a modest independent affect of ability on voting and social participation, controlling for levels of education in GSS and Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey data: He found no such finding in ANES (American National Election Studies) data but this data has much weaker and less objective data on intelligence. Hauser concluded that in general the bivariate impact of ability on civic engagement comes from ability proxying for levels of education ultimately achieved.  He also found that education was a stronger predictor of levels of civic engagement than ability.  For “ability”,  GSS had a measure of vocabulary; and WLS used Henmon–Nelson Test of Mental Ability.

2) Stephen Miller, ” Intelligence, Irrationality, and Civic Returns: Can Education Improve Democracy?” (Econ Dept., George Mason Univ.).  Miller also used GSS data and also found that both education and intellectual ability in GSS predict voting, daily newspaper reading and tolerance of free speech.  Ability did not have any independent effect on group membership and only had an effect through levels of education achieved.

Had the effect of intelligence on social capital been much stronger than education (even controlling for education), it would suggest that there is less that one can do to alter one’s baseline level of civic engagement, and head us to more Calvinist notions of predestined civic engagement.  But since education is the bigger driver in Hauser’s findings, it suggests that we are keepers of our civic fate: although we may begin with differential likelihoods of getting engaged, these can be more than offset through additional education (which both provides us with useful skills for getting engaged — like organizing others, running a meeting, writing persuasive materials, making a speech etc. — and will make others more likely to ask us to get civicly engaged).