Tuesday 28 May 2013

Give me a very bright child until he is 38 and I will give you civilization

While some researchers toil over birth cohorts, diligently tracking every child born in a particular week, others go searching for exceptional children and track them instead. More fun, I suppose. They do so to answer the question: is intelligence all it’s cracked up to be? Even more pedantically: is there any real difference between those who get a high score on an intelligence test compared with those who get an extremely high score, or is being reasonably bright good enough for most purposes in ordinary life?

Kell, Lubinski and Benbow (2013) “Who Rises to the Top? Early Indicators” Psychological Science 2013 24: 648 published online 26 March 2013
Youth identified before age 13 (N = 320) as having profound mathematical or verbal reasoning abilities (top 1 in
10,000) were tracked for nearly three decades. Their awards and creative accomplishments by age 38, in combination with specific details about their occupational responsibilities, illuminate the magnitude of their contribution and professional stature. Many have been entrusted with obligations and resources for making critical decisions about individual and organizational well-being. Their leadership positions in business, health care, law, the professoriate, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) suggest that many are outstanding creators of modern culture, constituting a precious human-capital resource. Identifying truly profound human potential, and forecasting differential development within such populations, requires assessing multiple cognitive abilities and using atypical measurement procedures. This study illustrates how ultimate criteria may be aggregated and longitudinally sequenced to validate such measures.

The Lubinski and Benbow gang have been tracking very bright kids for ages, and the results are clear: being brighter than 99.25 % of the general population, whilst all very well in itself and an almost guaranteed passport to a productive and happy life, doesn’t amount to all that much. Such people have a modest sufficiency of intellect, but no more. For a real impact, you have to be brighter than 99.75% of humanity. Those in the latter category have four times the impact of their less able colleagues. They publish more, have more doctorates, register more patents, and have more impact on their disciplines. How can such a small margin make such a difference? Well, once you are that far out on the right tail of the normal distribution you move quickly from being 1 in 1000 to being 1 in 10,000. Galton referred to those in the last category as having achieved “eminence”. These are “scary bright” minds.

Earlier work looked at some key early academic achievements, but now the research has looked at their worldly successes in mid-career. The authors give a long list of what their prodigies have achieved, and it is clear that they have been busy, successful, and are well plugged into the commanding heights of American academia and industry.

So, once you achieve the eminence of being 1 in 10,000 are these paragons of intellect on a level playing field, comrades of equal brilliance? No. A little extra something is required, and those that have it shoot ahead of even this advanced class. A few of them take most the prizes: one or two raise disproportionate amounts of research money, and account for several major advances. There are degrees of brilliance among this cognitive elite. So, what is it like to scoop the top prizes? Although the paper does not report any personal testimonies or self-evaluations (these may follow in a later paper, perhaps) it would not be surprising to find that many of them are probably very happy with their achievements. In my view, some aspects of academic life make for perpetual uncertainty, as if the peer review process can never be turned off.

A physicist of my acquaintance who made a habit of inviting Nobel Laureates to his departmental seminars found that they often doubted that they had deserved the accolade, and feared that the assembled physicists would spot the error of attribution the moment they began their lecture. Driving them to the department, he had to do his best to calm their nerves. So, even among this select crew, there are orders of precedence. Mercifully, as a visiting psychologist following on from the Nobel Laureates I was spared any such harsh evaluation, and accepted for my peripheral entertainment value.

So, to summarise the results of this rich source of research results on intelligence, if you get asked: “What does IQ mean, really?” you will find that Lubinski and Benbow have many of the answers.

Just for the record, by the age of 38 I had achieved (at the most generous and inclusive count) 28 rather slight publications, tenure, and one promotion, but few citations, no patents, no companies founded, and no perceptible impact either on my discipline or the course of Western civilization. All that may change soon, with any luck, but if you have passed 38, then look back and check your comparative achievements, and if you are approaching 38, remember that the clock is ticking.

Pereunt et imputantur.


  1. "being brighter than 97.25 % of the general population, whilst all very well ... you have to be brighter than 97.75% of humanity": typo?

  2. general population both times. Depending on which general population you can then make estimates about how you would rank against the global population (humanity).

  3. Thanks to dearieme and Prof David Lubinski for pointing out the typos: the figures should be 99.25 and 99.75 percentile ranks.

  4. Gee, they must have had really pushy parents!

    Any difference in accomplishment for high-V versus high-M people? I am currently in the updated SMPY (SET) on account of my verbal scores; can I look forward to such great achievements? ;)

  5. Pushy parents not required. Yes, there are differences according to V and M. Looks like you are going to end up in Humanities or Social Sciences. will try to post a slide.

  6. I'm being sarcastic about the pushy parents, of course. That's interesting; do you know the relative GRE-V versus GRE-M versus GRE-A scores of analytic philosophers (my main area of interest)?