Monday 29 April 2013

Are rich Americans bright?

 How bright are the elites in that home of opportunity and unbridled capitalism, the US of A?

It is a commonplace for the wealthy to say that they have worked for their money, and equally common for poorer citizens to doubt that hard work had anything to do with it. So it is interesting to look at those who rise to the top in terms of wealth and power and see what they have in common, and how, if at all, that differs from poorer and less influential citizens.

Jonathan Wai, who is becoming known for interesting intelligence research, has done a study (Jonathan Wai (2013) Investigating America's elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differences Intelligence, 41, 4, July–August 2013, pp 203–211) which seems obvious in retrospect, but which has not been done before, to check out whether IQ contributes to elite status. He studied the educational backgrounds of Senators, Congressmen, top Judges, the top 500 CEOs, and billionaires, and then looked up the entrance requirements of the colleges they attended, thus getting good estimates of their intelligence.

This might seem an error-prone procedure, but there are some intriguing validity checks which emerge from the findings. The brightest billionaires (top 1% of ability) went into investments and technology, the less able went into fashion, retail, food and beverage. Even among billionaires you can find stratification by intellect. And for those impecunious readers who are muttering to themselves that they are willing to become a billionaire even by selling sandwiches, the brightest billionaires had 6.04 billion whilst the duller ones were making do with $3.36 billion. Oh, the ignominy of finding one’s superyacht overshadowed by a larger one in Monaco. Overall, higher wealth is positively associated with higher ability and education level.

So, the American elite are intelligent and well educated. Women were in the minority, and those who reached the top 500 positions had to be brighter than male CEO’s to get there. Elite Democrats are brighter than Elite Republicans. Most billionaires did not flunk out of college, Bill Gates notwithstanding. To my eye there is some evidence in this study to support the popular notion that after living convivially through their college years together, Conservatives go off to make lots of money, paying just enough taxes to ensure that their Liberal college friends end up as Judges.

Of course, there are other bright people in America, working as journalists, film makers, computer hackers, fraudsters, researchers and even possibly as university teachers. Not all the 3 sigmas want to be in the public eye. Many lurk on obscure websites under pseudonyms, and who can blame them, particularly when one cannot trace them.

So, whatever you may think of American foreign policy, the behaviour of the Federal Reserve, the size of the US national debt and the future of the debased dollar, the American elite is composed of the brightest and the best.

The world is ruled by a mere fraction of wisdom.


  1. "and then looked up the entrance requirements of the colleges they attended, thus getting good estimates of their intelligence." That may become an increasingly poor guide; American college entrance is increasingly dominated, I understand, by privileged rather than meritocratic admission - privilege on grounds of race or on grounds that your father (or even mother?) attended the college in question, or at the very least donated heaps of moolah to it. Of course meritocratic admission may survive for athletic "admits", but the merit in question is unlikely to be intellectual.

  2. It's worth suggesting, perhaps, that the obviously brightest US president in ages was the former entrepreneur Hoover - a far cleverer fellow that the academic Wilson, for instance.

  3. The usual reference in Simonton (2006) but I have doubts about the accuracy of the methods, though they are fun to work out.

    Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership: Estimates and Correlations for 42 U.S. Chief Executives

    Dean Keith Simonton
    Article first published online: 29 JUN 2006
    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2006.00524.x
    Political Psychology
    Volume 27, Issue 4, pages 511–526, August 2006