Monday 14 September 2015

The intelligence of governments


Suppose that people, like plants, become adapted to their geographies, taking on characteristics which help them thrive. Assume that those adaptations, being driven by natural selection, create some behavioural differences between geographic groups. Depending on the strength of selection pressures, that might take no more than 16 generations, and may cause significant differences in the societies those people create. Given those differences, what happens when those groups, being ambulant, walk around and eventually meet people from other geographies? They may be attracted, repelled or indifferent to them. Groups may move towards or away from other peoples, in peace or in war, either wanting to join others or kill them. All of human history is there. Migration is as old as walking out of Africa.

Suppose that the main difference between groups is their ability to solve problems. Groups that are poor at problem solving will be slow to innovate new technologies, poor at teaching skills to the young and poor at organising themselves. Their governments will be prone to disorder and their long-suffering citizens will be poor. Sadly, they are getting the best governments they can produce as a group, but are not equal to the task, because the requirements are very demanding. In that case bad governments will drive people away towards good governments. Denied a real vote, people vote with their feet.

How good are governments, and what factors cause governments to be good or bad?

Heiner Rindermann approaches these large issues with Teutonic thoroughness, mixing comments on Aristotelian ethics with highly detailed analyses of complex data sets. He likes structured equation modelling, which probably reduces his readership by 50% per equation, but his work deserves a wider audience. We have worked together from time to time, and survived two replications of our “Cognitive Capitalism” paper, so I read his continuing work with interest.

Cognitive capital, good governance, and the wealth of nations. Heiner Rindermann, OasisKodila-Tedika, and Gregory Christainsen. Intelligence 51 (2015) 98–108.

Abstract: Good governance or government effectiveness (per the World Bank) is seen as a critical factor for the wealth of nations insofar as it shapes political and economic institutions and affects overall economic performance. The quality of governance, in turn, depends on the attributes of the people involved. In an analysis based on international data, government effectiveness was related to the cognitive human capital of the society as a whole, of the intellectual class, and of leading politicians. The importance of cognitive capital was reflected in the rate of innovation, the degree of economic freedom, and country competitiveness, all of which were found to have an impact on the level of productivity (GDP per capita) and wealth (per adult). Correlation, regression, and path analyses involving N = 98 to 201 countries showed that government effectiveness had a very strong impact on productivity and wealth (total standardized effects of β=.56–.68). Intellectual classes' cognitive competence, as indicated by scores for the top 5 percent of the population on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, also had a strong impact (β=.50–.54). Cross-lagged panel designs were used to establish causal directions, including backward effects from economic freedom and wealth on governance. The use of further controls showed no independent impacts on per capita wealth coming from geographical variables or natural resource rents. Finally, we discuss background factors and ways in which governance might be improved.

They say:

Governance has an impact through the development and interpretation of law, the negotiation of agreements with other countries and international organizations, the shaping of political and economic institutions, the influence on human capital development and demographic policies, the development and control of executive organs and the workforce in administration, bureaucracy, police, judiciary, military, customs, tax bodies, and technical inspection organs. Corruption and low quality administration and economy are controlled; competence, efficiency and meritocratic principles are encouraged.

Especially in modern and more complex jobs, learning is a prerequisite to becoming an effective worker (Schmidt & Hunter,1998). Job requirements themselves are cognitively demanding, e.g. understanding instructions, orders, and security risks, prioritizing tasks, coming to a decision, processing, and integrating and evaluating information for solving problems. The performance of diverse professionals such as accountants, businesspeople, physicians, engineers, managers, and scientists depends on cognitive ability (Gottfredson, 2003). Cognitive ability is not only helpful in navigating the educational selection and competence building process in schools, but also in coping with conditions in jobs and in every day life, e.g. driving a car, managing income and property, selecting a mate, educating children, and engaging life in a healthy and sensible way. People with greater cognitive ability learn from their mistakes and can therefore mimic what works elsewhere (Kodila-Tedika, 2012). Intelligence is also positively related to patience, which enables players in institutions to develop a better understanding of the principles and rules that govern them (Kodila-Tedika & Kalonda-Kanyama, 2012; Shamosh & Gray, 2008).

An example of worst practice is revealing. According to Schmidt (2009, pp. 11ff.), until the mid-1980s the Washington, DC police force was one of the best in the USA. Applicants were selected for police academy training based on a general intelligence test and a background investigation. The mayor, Marion Barry, eliminated this procedure with several consequences: the drop-out rate among the police increased(80% of the new hires were incapable of completing the required training); the content of academy training was eased; the police officers being produced were frequently incompetent (murder indictments were dismissed because the reports written by the officers on the scene were unintelligible, solution rates for murder cases declined, firearms accidents soared because officers did not know how to use weapons properly, and crime on the police force became more common).

Studies at the macro-social level usually show high correlations between average cognitive ability and productivity or income, where average cognitive ability is assessed on the basis of intelligence tests or student achievement tests.  Correlations between cognitive ability and production or income are usually between r= .50 and .80 (Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012b), and the relationship holds for richer as well as for poorer countries (Kodila-Tedika & Bolito-Losembe, 2014).

Regarding the intellectual task of governing, the authors have this to say:

Good governance is a highly complex cognitive task. Leaders and administrators need to acquire and interpret information, frequently from multiple and even contradictory sources, process it in the light of differing aims and values, and arrive at decisions. These decisions are only provisional because the evaluation of outcomes and changing conditions may call for fine-tuning or even revisions. To govern is to engage in complex problem solving as studied in simulations, e.g., being a company manager or the mayor of a community. We therefore assume that cognitive ability positively contributes to the quality of governance. Especially at the level of intellectual classes, which form the social basis for the government and political leaders, cognitive ability is likely to be highly important.



They conclude:

Government effectiveness has a positive impact by supporting economic freedom, innovation and competitiveness, which in turn affect economic productivity and wealth (per adult, total: β=.68). Our final model (Fig. 5) using GDP and wealth in logarithmic form explains a whopping 73 % (GDP) and 88 % (wealth) of the cross-national variation in these variables. Compared to economic freedom the impact of government effectiveness is much larger. Additional geographic and natural resources controls have only a minor impact.

As in previous studies (Rindermann et al., 2009) the level of the top ability group (“intellectual classes”, “smart fractions”, “rocket scientists”, “the team in the tail”) had a stronger impact on economic performance. Cognitive capitalism is built upon intellectual classes.


  1. "Intelligence is also positively related to patience": that's an interesting aside. What other economically useful personal traits are positively correlated with intelligence? The ability to defer gratification presumably is, which is not identical (is it?) to patience.

  2. Patience, deferring gratification are all aspects of slow-life history, following K rather than r strategies. Search for Woodley and Figueredo for some examples on the blog.

  3. Bad governance such as US...

    Nations with lower average iq like Barbados still is good because good government make a good country, independent than their average intelligence.

    Developed country or some them, have both.

    Good and not super-mega-ultra-master-plus amaaazing governments.

  4. Really great post, Thank you for sharing this knowledge.Excellently written article, if only all bloggers offered the same level of content as you, the internet would be a much better place. Please keep it up!..

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  5. I would add my two cents here, citing my research that intelligence also predicts better gender equity (Salahodjaev & Azam, 2015) and lower sizes of shadow economy (Salahodjaev, 2015).