Why it doesn’t pay to be just nice–you also need to be intelligent.

Posted on under Today's research

Some really interesting new research has revealed how people’s intelligence, rather than their personality traits, lead to success. This may be the wow! of the week. It also follows neatly on the previous piece of research.
What the researchers say: The team behind this study devised a series of games to find out which factors lead to cooperative behavior when people interact in social and workplace situations. Their findings, due to be published in the Journal of Political Economy, showed that people with a higher IQ displayed ‘significantly higher’ levels of cooperation, which in turn led to them earning more money as part of the game.
The failure of individuals with lower intelligence to appropriately follow a consistent strategy and estimate the future consequences of their actions accounted for these different outcomes.
Personality traits—such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, trust and generosity—also affect behavior, but in smaller measure, and only initially (since they are largely contextual).
The researchers conclude, based on their findings, that a society is cohesive if people are smart enough to be consistent in their strategies, and to foresee the social consequences of their actions, including the consequences for others.
The lead researcher said: “We wanted to explore what factors make us effective social animals. In other words, what enables us to behave optimally in situations when cooperation is potentially beneficial not only to us, but to our neighbors, people in the same country or who share the same planet.
“People might naturally presume that people who are nice, conscientious and generous are automatically more cooperative. But, through our research, we find overwhelming support for the idea that intelligence is the primary condition for a socially cohesive, cooperative society. A good heart and good behavior have an effect too but it’s transitory and small.” This is, of course, contrary to a lot of the EQ studies of the last 20 years.
“An additional benefit of higher intelligence in our experiment, and likely in real life, is the ability to process information faster, hence to accumulate more extensive experience, and to learn from it. This scenario can be applied to the workplace, where it’s likely that intelligent people who see the bigger picture and work cooperatively, will ultimately be promoted and financially rewarded,” the researchersconclude.
According to them the findings have potentially important implications for policy, especially in the education sector, as well as international trade.
“The core principle of working cooperatively and seeing the bigger picture also applies to international trade, where there is overwhelming evidence that free trade is a non-zero sum game i.e. all parties could benefit,” said the researchers
“With education, our results suggest that focusing on intelligence in early childhood could potentially enhance not only the economic success of the individual, but the level of cooperation in society in later life.”
The research involved four different games which were representative of different and very specific strategic situations. Interactions were repeated, giving time and opportunity for each participant to observe and to reflect on the past behavior of the other.
Where the strategy game involved a trade-off between current and future gains, those with a higher IQ won more money per round. The failure of individuals with lower intelligence to find and follow an optimal strategy and appropriately estimate the future consequences of their actions accounted for the difference in outcomes.
Perhaps surprisingly, conscientious people also tended to be more cautious, which in turn reduced their cooperative behavior.
So, what? To say this study is important is a vast understatement, and I am looking forward to follow-up studies for confirmation of the results.
One of the big problems with the study—which the researchers do not consider—is that IQ is largely (but by no means wholly—about 30-40%) genetic. This being so it would be theoretically possible to breed humans for high IQ (or genetically engineer them for the same result). This is a point that Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (no relation to me) made ibn their much-maligned book of 1994 “The Bell Curve.” They argued that we were in fact creating as society in which the mass of its members lack high intelligence and a small highly intelligent upper class control everything. It would not be in the interests of this upper class to allow collaboration among any but their ow.
Another problem with the study is the assumption that cooperative people with high IQ will work for the betterment of mankind. I think that this is demonstrably false. People will work for the betterment of those that they think are part of their tribe (those with whom they have most in common), be that the tribe of billionaires, alt-right university students, Antifa agitators, Evangelicals or their squad or platoon. They will not generally strive for the betterment of other tribes. This kind of narrow altruism is one of our prime genetic drivers.
What now? Genetics aside, the majority of IQ is derived from the social environment. But this environmental programming doesn’t stop in childhood. There is a mass of research to show that intelligence is contextual—we will be “intelligent” in some situations (especially social situations) and not in others).
If we are perceived as stupid, we will be. Employers, as well as parents, therefore must create the conditions in which people can reach their IQ potential. This primarily involves creating for them what childhood development psychologists call “islands of competence” (see our book “Raising an Optimistic Child”) in which they develop mastery, confidence and thus what we call IQ.