It seems to me that the effective altruism community has a tendency to overemphasize smarts and to underemphasize other important traits. (Some related remarks on this forum are found here, here, and here.) Yes, smarts do matter greatly, and IQ tests are indeed predictive of various outcomes and achievements. But something can be both important and overemphasized at the same time.
By analogy, vitamin C is no doubt necessary for our health, yet to focus on vitamin C to such an extent that one neglects most other vitamins can risk deficiencies of those other vitamins. A focus on smarts to the exclusion of other important traits and capacities may likewise lead to “deficiencies” along those other dimensions.
To clarify, my claim here is not that anyone holds the cartoonish view that “IQ is everything, period”. My claim is simply that the relative emphasis on smarts versus other important traits seems quite far from optimal, and that it would therefore be beneficial to focus more on those other traits, some of which I will outline below. [ETA: And beyond neglectedness, a reason to focus more on these other important traits relative to IQ — at the level of what we seek to develop individually and incentivize collectively — is that many of these other traits and skills probably are more elastic and improvable than is IQ.]
Note also that my aim here is not to point fingers at anyone; I think most people, myself included, occasionally fall into the trap of being too focused on smarts compared to other things — and that is no sin. (Intelligence can be fascinating, after all.) The point is just that we would do well to focus (more) on promoting a broader range of important traits and virtues.
One can have a high IQ while still not…
Below are various traits that all seem necessary for optimal altruistic impact, and which are plausibly worth emphasizing more relative to smarts (on the current margin). Many of these traits are likely correlated with IQ, but that does not negate the point that one can overemphasize IQ at their expense, and that one can have a high IQ and still completely fail to develop these other traits and virtues. (Needless to say, the following list of important traits is far from exhaustive; I hope you will add to it in the comments.)
Being knowledgeable and widely read
- Becoming informed and insightful requires a dedicated pursuit of relevant information, for which pure smarts is no substitute (even if it can be very helpful).
- This is related to what Robin Hanson said when Sam Harris asked him about who he thought was the smartest person ever: “I don’t really care about who is the smartest person … I care much more about who's the most accomplished, and I actually think it's a problem that people are so focused on showing they're smart and not focused enough on showing they're accomplished.”
Being good at scrutinizing one’s own ideas and convictions
- One can be extremely smart yet still be dogmatic and overly defensive about one’s pet ideas.
- In other words, being smart is no cure for confirmation bias or myside bias, and studies have even found that “the magnitude of the myside bias shows very little relation to intelligence”. While smart people are better at identifying bad arguments, they are also better at rationalizing their own pre-existing views.
- This is related to the concept of “dysrationalia” and the gap between IQ and rationality.
Being willing to face unpleasant views and inconvenient conclusions
- While higher IQ is helpful for understanding problems and views that involve a high level of complexity, there is little reason to think that high IQ is similarly helpful for contending with problems and views that are disturbing or inconvenient.
- In other words, raw smarts are no cure for wishful thinking and convenience-based worldviews and customs, suggesting that everyone may benefit from efforts to face up to disturbing and inconvenient conclusions (examples of such conclusions might be that one could have a greater impact by switching careers, or that factory farming is a grave atrocity).
Being willing to think independently
- One can be extremely smart yet not make much of an effort to think for oneself, such as by going through the steps of commonly accepted arguments, and trying to assess their merits directly.
- In other words, high IQ is no cure for conformity bias and groupthink, and thus provides no assurance against being wrong due to misplaced trust in an underscrutinized consensus.
Being resistant to excessive contrarianism
- On the other hand, it is also possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and to embrace contrarian views because they serve as a signal of independent thinking.
- Put differently, a high IQ is no cure against the potentially distorting influence of drives to appear special or rebellious.
- Note that it is possible — and perhaps even common — to be both excessively conformist and contrarian at the same time, such as by being unduly conformist in one’s ingroup while being unduly contrarian against the views held by (perceived) outgroups.
Being resistant to other signaling-related distortions
- More generally, one can be extremely bright while still failing to spot and evade any number of signaling-related distortions in one’s views and behaviors.
- In particular, one can have a high IQ yet still fail to see through one’s own crony beliefs that secretly serve to signal loyalty to one’s favored coalitions, or fail to notice beliefs and behaviors that are driven by a hidden motive to signal certain traits, such as high IQ or superior moral character. Yet the prevalence and strength of our signaling drives suggests that the ability to notice and temper such drives is of paramount importance. After all, it would be quite a remarkable coincidence if those beliefs and actions that are ideal for signaling loyalty and impressiveness just also happened to produce the best outcomes from an impartial perspective.
Being willing to explore fundamental issues
- One can be extremely smart yet nevertheless spend little time exploring the most fundamental questions, including questions about what matters and what is ultimately worth prioritizing.
- Indeed, even if one is good at thinking for oneself, one’s thoughts might still tend to exclude deeper and more foundational issues, such as those related to ethics and value theory. Neither smarts nor independent thinking per se guarantee that one will focus on the most fundamental or most important questions.
Being driven (by altruistic impact)
- One can obviously be very smart without being strongly driven, let alone being driven to help other sentient beings.
- A strong drive seems to be an independent predictor of success in various domains. Indeed, conscientiousness predicts higher educational achievement independent of IQ. Yet studies suggest that there is a weak negative relationship between conscientiousness and IQ, possibly because people with a high IQ have less of a need to develop conscientiousness in order to perform well. This tentatively suggests that people with a higher IQ can reap significant gains from efforts to cultivate conscientiousness (especially if they are lazy).
- The importance of being driven is related to the intention-behavior gap: one can have a very high IQ and nevertheless lack the motivation or skill to act on one’s deepest values. Likewise, one can have a high IQ, and in addition be highly knowledgeable about biases and pitfalls of the human mind, yet still not possess the practical skill of applying such knowledge to one’s own biases, or to the biases of one’s ingroup.
Being in touch with common sense
- One can be extremely smart yet still fail to give sufficient weight to common sense, even if only as a sanity check.
- Indeed, smart people who have an “abstraction attraction” might be especially vulnerable to losing touch with or downplaying common sense, as they may have a tendency to rely too strongly on purely theoretical arguments.
Displaying interpersonal kindness and respect
- One can have a high IQ, and even be committed to impartial moral principles, yet still fail to display much kindness and respect in direct interpersonal interactions.
- In other words, having a high IQ and being dedicated to certain abstract moral principles does not make one immune to being arrogant and conceited. Nor does it guarantee an ability to display actual compassion toward fellow individuals in practice.
- Indeed, having a high IQ and affirming certain demanding moral principles might risk making people more arrogant (e.g. by making one feel uniquely special and elite) and might lead people to act less morally in some respects (e.g. due to moral licensing). This suggests that deliberate efforts to cultivate kindness and humility (or at least “non-arrogance”) might be helpful, perhaps especially among high-status individuals, as well as among those who feel they belong to a group that is uniquely moral.
Exceptional combinations of skills can provide exceptional opportunities for impact
By becoming an outlier on many of the traits listed above — or even by doing decently well on a great number of them — one can likely come to embody a combination of traits and skills that precious few have mastered before, and which may open the door to unique opportunities for impact (even if one does not have a sky high IQ).
A case in point might be George Orwell, about whom Christopher Hitchens said the following:
The remarkable thing about Orwell — and the encouraging thing — was he is not a genius. He lived to only 46 years. He never went to university. He never had a steady job. He usually didn’t have a steady publisher. He will never be forgotten because he managed to disprove imperialism, Stalinism and fascism in one lifetime and made some imperishable raids on its territory that no one is ever going to forget. All the time ill. All the time poor. It shows how much difference a person of really average integrity and intelligence and education can make if they have a little courage and a little intellectual honesty. The shortcomings of the individual you can see in him too. But he basically won his own battle against his own prejudices.
I think Hitchens was wrong in implying that Orwell was of “really average integrity” (and he probably was not of “really average intelligence” either). In fact, Orwell seems to have been a clear outlier in terms of integrity and intellectual honesty, which were arguably among his most distinguishing qualities. But that only speaks to the potential value of developing such neglected and less “shiny” traits and virtues.
Runaway IQ signaling: A potential explanation and pitfall
What might explain the apparent overemphasis on IQ compared to other important traits? This is an open question, but one hypothesis that may be a part of the answer is that many people are unduly concerned with IQ signaling (perhaps because high IQ has become the pre-eminent marker of status).
This dynamic was hinted at in a 2016 talk by Geoffrey Miller, in which he highlighted “runaway IQ signaling” as a potential pitfall among aspiring effective altruists:
I’m very concerned that [the effective altruism community] doesn’t go the same path I’ve seen many other fields go, which is: when you have bright people, they start competing for status on the basis of brightness, rather than on the basis of actual contributions to the field. …
EA is prone to runaway signaling of intelligence and openness. So if you include a lot more math than you really strictly need to, or more intricate arguments, or more mind-bending counterfactuals, that might be more about signaling your own IQ than solving relevant problems.
Again, the claim here is not that IQ signaling is ruining everything, but merely that it might be a biasing factor for many of us.
Other important and neglected traits?
Which additional traits distinct from IQ do you think are important and worth prioritizing more? Feel free to comment below. :)
ETA: To clarify, the goal of this post is not to assert the general claim that "EA overrates IQ". My claim is rather that, in terms of the traits we seek to develop and incentivize, IQ seems overemphasized relative to many other important traits and virtues that deserve greater emphasis, such as the ten traits I list below. (And that IQ may be correlated with many of those other traits is not a strong reason to emphasize IQ more relative to those other traits.) This claim is consistent with thinking that IQ is underrated or underemphasized relative to many other factors, including factors that are often given great importance, such as formal titles and prestige.
For their feedback on this post, I’m grateful to Teo Ajantaival, Tobias Baumann, Timothy Chan, James Faville, Winston Oswald-Drummond, and Sebastian Schmidt.