Wednesday 1 June 2016

The comparative advantage of eminence


No sooner do I post a little meditation on the sex ratio of superior minds, taking the metric up to the absurdly high levels of IQ 155, than onto my metaphorical desk plonks a paper by David Lubinski and colleagues on two large samples of these very same very bright persons, paragons of problem-solving, front runners of intellect, those who through the vivid force of their minds prevail and fare forth far beyond the flaming ramparts of the heavens and traverse the boundless universe in thought and mind, and in a short space like runners carry the torch of civilization ever forwards.

Truly is the blogger’s lot a happy one, with so many contributions to ponder in the quiet precincts which are well protected by the teachings of the wise. Even Lucretius would have been excited.

When Lightning Strikes Twice: Profoundly Gifted, Profoundly Accomplished. Matthew C. Makel, Harrison J. Kell, David Lubinski, Martha Putallaz, and Camilla P. Benbow

Psychological Science 1–15  2016
DOI: 10.1177/0956797616644735


The educational, occupational, and creative accomplishments of the profoundly gifted participants (IQs > 160) in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) are astounding, but are they representative of equally able 12-year-olds? Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) identified 259 young adolescents who were equally gifted. By age 40, their life accomplishments also were extraordinary: Thirty-seven percent had earned doctorates, 7.5% had achieved academic tenure (4.3% at research-intensive universities), and 9% held patents; many were high level leaders in major organizations. As was the case for the SMPY sample before them, differential ability strengths predicted their contrasting and eventual developmental trajectories—even though essentially all participants possessed both mathematical and verbal reasoning abilities far superior to those of typical Ph.D. recipients. Individuals, even profoundly gifted ones, primarily do what they are best at. Differences in ability patterns, like differences in interests, guide development along different paths, but ability level, coupled with commitment, determines whether and the extent to which noteworthy accomplishments are reached if opportunity presents itself.

First, let us get a grip on who these people are: they are the brightest in 10,000 persons. Eminent minds, Galton called them. If our tests are valid they should go on to a lifetime of intellectual achievements. If our tests are arbitrary, partial, narrow and invalid then their lives will be no different from the average person, possibly worse, as they will be enmeshed in useless analytic ponderings, and lack multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence, everyday intelligence, street smarts and common sense. They will be freaks, basket cases, quivering incompetent wrecks cowering in the far reaches of sanatoria and liberal arts departments.

The paper begins with a striking sentence, unusual in any part of an academic paper:

Extraordinary economies are created by extraordinary minds. More than ever, the strength of countries and their competitiveness depends on exceptional human capital (Friedman, 2007; National Science Board, 2010). This leads to the question: Is it possible to identify those individuals who possess this exceptional human capital early in their lives so that their talents can be fostered for the good of society as well as their own?

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY; Lubinski & Benbow, 2006), Kell, Lubinski, and Benbow (2013) tracked the educational, occupational, and creative accomplishments of 320 youths assessed before age 13 as being in the top 1 in 10,000 in mathematical or verbal reasoning ability (or both). They were identified through talent searches using above-level assessments (I.e. mathematical and verbal reasoning measures designed for college-bound high school seniors). By age 38, the magnitude of their creativity, occupational success, and professional stature was astonishing. Specifically, over the course of 25 years, the individuals who had been identified by SMPY before age 13 accomplished the following: Forty-four percent had obtained doctoral degrees, 7.5% had secured academic tenure at research-intensive universities, and 15% held one or more patents (Kell, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2013).
Several were highly successful vice presidents, partners, and department heads in the corporate sector or in the field of law, medicine, or information technology. Yet, even though essentially all participants possessed quantitative and verbal reasoning abilities far superior to those of typical Ph.D. recipients (Wai, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2009), different patterns of profound intellectual talent uncovered in their youth were predictive of qualitatively different educational, occupational, and creative outcomes.

To be sure, other things (e.g., commitment, interests, opportunity), clearly mattered (Lubinski & Benbow, 2000, 2006; Simonton, 2014). Nonetheless, participants seemed to prefer to, and did, develop their talents in those areas in which they displayed the highest potential. The policy implications for developing human capital across the life span and for biosocial research are evident and range from calibrating expectations for educational interventions (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2011) to illuminating phenotypes for neuroscientific inquiry into human cognition (Jung & Haier, 2007).

Convincing as this is, a replication is always desirable. This was provided by another similar talent spotting program.

The  Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP; Putallaz, Baldwin, & Selph, 2005) began conducting annual above-level assessments on 10s of thousands of intellectually talented youth in 1981 and, thus, affords the opportunity to satisfy all the methodological requirements to evaluate the generalizability of the SMPY findings (Kell, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2013). The present study, a collaboration between SMPY and Duke TIP, was designed to determine if an independent sample of equally able young adolescents would yield results conceptually equivalent to the two general findings for the SMPY sample: Specifically, we examined whether (a) the magnitude of the educational, occupational, and creative accomplishments of the SMPY sample would be commensurate with that of the TIP sample, and (b) whether patterns of mathematical and verbal abilities would have the same potency in predicting qualitatively different accomplishments over time in the TIP sample as they had in the SMPY sample. Would lightning strike twice?

The authors put the two studies together, using a common framework of achievements in the educational, occupational and creative spheres, and depicting them by the technique of astronomical blinking. There! Just after saying in a previous post that the best ever statistical depiction is Minard’s map of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, here is a new technique. By looking in quick succession at pictures of the stars in the heavens at different times, differences and apparent movement can be detected. Actually, not that new. Photo reconnaissance used stereoscopic techniques to identify unusual military targets in 1912.

Having whetted your appetite, let me keep up suspense by first showing you two bog-standard tables revealing that the achievements of these two groups are remarkable similar.

Achievements of bright people

These people have done well, as I imagine have many of my readers, who will be able to match them on many of these accomplishments.  However, within this bright bunch, some particularly eminent minds have done even better. Looking at the list in in Table 2 I think it will be harder for most of us to match these or comparable accomplishments.

Outlying achievements of bright people

Now, as trailed above, here is one example of astronomical blinking, in this case the occupational accomplishments of the two samples compared in the same statistical skies.

Occupations of very bright persons

Verbal abilities are on the ordinate, mathematical abilities on abscissa.

One reason for presenting these plots is to highlight the vast amount of psychological diversity reliably found among young adolescents selected for an extreme specific ability. They vary in psychologically meaningful ways not only on the measure on which they were selected but also on other specific ability measures on which they were not selected. For example, consider the participants scoring 700 or above on the SAT-Math. Some have SAT-Verbal scores that are even more impressive, whereas others have SAT-Verbal scores that are “merely” around the cut-off for the top 1% (I.e., just under 400) in verbal reasoning ability. But do these differences matter for important life outcomes? This question is answered empirically and in the affirmative by examining the outcomes.

Salient clusters reliably emerged within and across time, revealing that individuals with profound intellectual talent tend to gravitate toward domains congruent with their intellectual strengths. At all three time points, impressive and rare outcomes in the arts and humanities were much more likely to emerge in the northwest quadrant within the Cartesian coordinate panel than in the other quadrants; that is, these accomplishments were found primarily among participants whose SAT-Verbal scores were higher than their SAT-Math scores. Conversely, impressive and rare science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outcomes were found primarily among participants whose SAT-Math scores were higher than their SAT-Verbal scores. Law degrees, careers in law, and creative accomplishments in this field (I.e., legal publications) occupied an intermediate location within the space defined by these dimensions.

Accomplishments of a profoundly gifted sample of 259 individuals identified by Duke TIP at age 13 and tracked over three decades (Tables 1–5) are consistent with the extraordinary occupational and creative outcomes
observed earlier in an independent sample of 320 of their
intellectual peers identified at a similar age and followed
up through age 38 by SMPY (see Tables 1–3 in Kell,
Lubinski, & Benbow, 2013). In addition, we observed
coherent cross-sample qualitative differences in graduate
degrees, occupations, and creative accomplishments as a
function of distinct ability patterns identified by age 13
(Figs. 2–4). In short, the SMPY results were replicated, and thus, these findings have important implications for
the biosocial sciences and policy. It is possible to identify,
at an early age, rare human capital that is needed to
move society forward in multiple ways, which are differentially predictable.

Selecting the top 0.01% in ability identified an inordinate
number of future innovators, corporate leaders, and builders
of modern economies. They were “discovered” because
above-level (developmentally appropriate) and sufficiently
challenging intellectual assessments were used for these

A summary first, then a digression. In summary, you can spot exceptional minds early, if you bother to test for them. Verbal and mathematical tests provide powerful predictors. Adding spatial tests (done for some of them in later testing) assists in getting even better predictions. There is no upper limit after which additional smarts make no contribution. On the contrary, every increase in ability, like additional height in a basketball player, adds to achievement in life. Very bright people contribute a lot to society.

My digression is to note that although a simple explanation for the different directions these very bright people take in their occupations is that they play to their strengths, the observed differentiation is similar to the patterns of international trade as noted by Ricardo in his theory of comparative advantage. Ricardo sought to explain why a country like England which in 1817 could produce many things more efficiently than most other countries (such as Portugal) still bothered to trade with them. Similarly, why do very bright people, very much better at virtually all intellectual tasks than most people, still bother to specialise in only one of their manifold talents? Applying Ricardo’s theory to these very bright people, if any two eminent minds capable of producing two products, say Words and Sums, engage in a free market then each eminent mind can increase their overall consumption by selling the good for which they have comparative advantage while buying the other good, provided there are differences in productivity between both eminent minds. Bright people who are better at words will do wordy work, even though they are very much better than 9,999 other people at Maths. It is comparative advantage rather than absolute advantage that is responsible for intellectual specialisation and the trading of intellectual products.

I digress. Must concentrate on something patentable.


  1. I'm not sure that you do want to concentrate on something patentable. I dropped my patent applications when I realised that I'd do better to pursue the use of copyright on software than patents on hardware. In spite of which an outfit in Munich writes to me from time to time about two patents that it fondly imagines are mine. Somewhere a clerk made a cock-up.

    1. Oh dear, arsy-versy again. I should have begun by complimenting you on your excellent analogy with Ricardo.

      As for how talented very clever people can be, may I cite a joke I enjoyed years ago? The question was what sort of admissions exams, if any, Cambridge should employ. One voice said "It doesn't really matter. If we demanded people who could play the cello while simultaneously bowling leg breaks, platoons of the buggers would appear."

  2. 17% of the sample were women. Which means, using emil kirkegaard calculator, that either mean IQ is the same, but SD difference is higher (e.g. 1.6 points), OR

    we have difference of 2 IQ points and difference in SD equivalent to 1 IQ point. A bit different from what you have posted in the previous post (where it was postulated 4 points difference in mean and 1 point in SD, which would result in about 10% of females in the sample)

  3. I wonder how much better they did than those merely in the top 1%? Those accomplishments look to be in mostly the 1 in 10 to 1 in 1000 range. Certainly very few are earning money at the 1 in 10,000 level, or even 1 in 100 level, and that is because the positions running things are scarcely ever given to (or even allowed to fall into the hands of) people that smart.

    Perhaps it's a "limiting reagent" sort of situation, where past a certain point lack of another ability, such as Machiavellianism, or salesmanship, or something else isn't high enough to beat a merely bright competitor who has it. Or it could be that the high-IQ types intimidate or don't relate well enough with their mental inferiors, who are the ones making all the decisions about who gets good grades, jobs, grants, investments etc. (These administrators will usually be about 1.5 - 2.5 s.d. lower, scoring about the same as the high-IQ adults did somewhere between age five and age eleven. High-IQ people pointing out that administrators are comparative fools also generally works about as well as does telling that to children.)

    If companies or universities recruited extremely intelligent people the way they recruit top salesweasels or athletes, high-IQ people would live like sports stars or better, given that making correct judgements is a much more productive activity.
    I have to wonder about the strong negative correlation between math and verbal scores shown on the graphs. Bad data? Even if intelligence splits into two or three things rather than just g at this level, one would expect low positive correlation, not strong negative correlation. Maybe these mostly aren't really generally smart people but just those with "splinter skills".

  4. I've been browsing some literature on how many people go to university in Poland and I came across an interesting table. It lists university majors by popularity among laureates of various Olympiads, who were admitted to university in 2013.
    Here's the Polish report, it's table 12 is on page 24:
    I thought I'd provide you with a txt file (tab-separated) with the Polish names and their English translations/equivalents:
    There's one major with a confusingly long name -- suffice to say that it's arguably the most impressive major one may study in the arts & humanities in Poland. It lets you study two majors as one while providing you with more freedom and convenience than when studying the very same majors separately; in my experience such students typically chose history/philosophy/law as one or both majors.