Why does intelligence vary? And who is it really important for? Professor Jan Ketil Arnulf explores.
We live in a society fixated with intelligence, and we feel guilty about it. One example: I was going to call this article “Why there are stupid people.” The title was meant jokingly, but it struck me that many would be upset by this arrogant statement and dislike me to a degree that would make them blind to the fact that my point was the opposite: I want to have some fun with the importance of intelligence.
Hey – let’s guess using predictability
Let me first establish one thing: I am talking about “intelligence” as measured by IQ tests. The measurements are far more robust than our ability to explain what it is. The robustness of the measurements is one of the reasons why we cannot escape the term. Intelligence, as measured by tests, makes it possible to predict school performance, training results and success in the workplace.
There are of course other things that play a role. However, intelligence is the single strongest predictor of future performance – in all school subjects and careers, from geography to welding to chefs and engineers. In recruiting, it is therefore said that if you only get to know one thing about your candidates then check their intelligence, as this gives the best basis for guessing.
For this to be possible, intelligence has to vary more than most other characteristics. This variety is a little strange. Important biological properties tend to gather around an optimum value. Body temperatures are basically the same for all and changes reflect significant deviations, e.g. illness. The genetic pigmentation of the skin changes rapidly over generations and adapts to the intensity of the sunlight where you live. People mostly have two legs. So why do people have different intelligence to a degree that it noticeably affects their lives?
As we all know, of course the world is square
The only one I know of who has seriously occupied themselves with this question is the U.S. organizational researcher James G. March. In an amusing article from 1991, he simulated the effect of varying intelligence on groups of people. The unexpected answer was that when intelligence varies, it helps groups of people to learn faster!
Here is a thought experiment to understand how this is possible: Imagine a group of people who live in a hexagonal world, but they do not know it yet – the world must be discovered first. They walk around alone and in groups and find the edges. Some of them find the same edges again; others do not know for sure what edges they have found. To determine this, they need to talk. Eventually they agreed on four of the edges, and thus they assumed that the world was square.
Here stupidity is a resource, because those who do not quite understand what the others are talking about are not as easily captured by their agreement. He would rather bang his head against both the fifth and the sixth edges for a while longer. Eventually, the others could notice this and add at least one edge to their worldview.
And I thought I knew everything…
In reality, the world obviously has an astronomical amount of “edges” or phenomena to discover. March put great numbers into his simulation and found that the more complex the world is, the more the group stands to gain from not everyone learning as quickly. The risk here is an ugly phenomenon called “premature convergence,” meaning that we agree on how the world is at a too early stage.
No matter how intelligent we are, none of us is in fact smart enough to understand everything. In addition, we have limited experiences. However, the brain does not care about that – most of us have a feeling of understanding much of everyday life, yet we are wrong much more often than we realize. What James March found was that varying intelligence in groups of people protects us from collective absolute certainty.
Do your bit for the common good – be slightly silly
For the individual, this is still no consolation. Whoever is wrong will usually just knock his head against a wall that has already been discovered. Varying intelligence was a strength for groups of people in nature. Today, you can get the best of both worlds in a simpler way: Organizations can get the same effect by having a small stream of new recruits. If these new employees are also smart, you get the best of both worlds.
However, the moral of the story is: If you feel a little silly today, remember that it is at the service of the community! In addition, to those who take pride in their IQ: Life cannot be known. It can only be lived.
- Learn more about Jan Ketil Arnulf
- Visit the Fudan MBA program
- Visit the Fudan University School of Management
- Visit the BI Norwegian Business School
- Read Jan Ketil Arnulf’s article: Do you Fall into the Indicator Trap?
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
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- Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.