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Could the Secret of Success Lie In Being a Little Bit Less Clever?

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If you had a choice, would you rather be a good brain surgeon, or a good parent? Would you rather be a good corporate executive, or a good friend? Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa poses these questions in his new book The Intelligence Paradox, arguing too much store is placed on intelligence and academic success.

Evolutionary Psychology is a branch of science which contends that any feature of a person, such as their physique or indeed their personality, such as intelligence, must have evolved and spread across Homo Sapiens, because it produced 'survival of the fittest' benefits.

But why then does such huge variability in IQ in the population persist? Why the famous Bell Curve? A question many a weary job interviewer must have asked themselves following along day of stupid answers to simple questions.

Dr Kanazawa, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, notes that those not blessed with a high IQ still seem to learn a lot without ever needing to be formally taught. It's just that they're good at learning things our formal education system never bothers to teach, grade or value.

Gang members who are expelled from school without any qualifications, seem to intuitively know how to make and keep friends, without ever having to be instructed. Indeed they may be better at forming strategic affiliations than those techies and nerds who remain top of the class, destined to be made partners.

Is it possible that the ability to make friends held just as much survival significance, if not more, than a high IQ in our evolutionary past? Do we forget this at our peril? Evolution is about strategies which endure successfully across millions of years, not just one or two business cycles. We evolved to make affiliations because for an extended part of our evolutionary history, it was what enabled survival. Having strong and supportive friendships predicted continued existence despite predators and warring tribes in our distant past, rather than a facility with algebra. Everybody then can make friends, everyone that is, contends Kanazawa, except for the academically successful, who end up at the top of hierarchies and running our societies, because IQ is overrated as the solution to life's problems.

Kanazawa uses a famous psychological study of the most academically gifted to back up his argument.The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth tracks the lives of more than 5,000 individuals in the USA who have been identified as truly gifted, with an IQ score higher than 155 - when the national average is 100 and the average graduate scores 120. More than half of this elite group (51.7% of men and 54.3%of women) have earned a doctorate (Ph.D., M.D.), compared to the population baseline in the USA of 1%. More than a third of the men and about a fifth of the women earn more than $100,000 a year in 2003-2004 in their early 30s. Additionally, 17.8% of the men and 4.3% of the women have earned patents, compared to the population baseline in the US of 1%.

In stark contrast to theirstellar successes in education and employment, this elite do not do very wellin domains of marriage and parenting, according to Kanazawa, indeed on various measures they even fall below average. Kanazawa can find no evidence of superior functioning in friendship, parenting or family life for those with high IQs across swathes of psychological research.

Another branch of behavioural science - Swarm Intelligence - is now also asking some new troubling questions about the disadvantages of ultra elite IQ. The term 'Swarm Intelligence' arose out of the observation that while an individual bee may not seem that clever, the whole hive possesses an aptitude way beyond the sum of each individual bee's IQ. But corporations may be making a fatal error if they think the Swarm Intelligence of their organisation is simply a summation ofthe individual brainpower of each member. Because of a poor hiring strategy, it could often be a lot lower.

So the latest research on Swarm Intelligence - the study of the IQ or ability of groups, as opposed to the capabilities of individuals, suggests intriguing disadvantages groups of the dazzlingly talented suffer from, as opposed to more diverse ability ranges, which might help avoid financial bubbles and crashes in the future.

After all one deep puzzle of the last fiscal collapse was why so many brilliant 'experts' failed to anticipate the problem, and therefore botched acting early enough to prevent it. It's a deeper paradox for this last crash than all previous ones, given the very brightest and best coming out of the education system are lured into finance these days, more so than ever before.

The answer could lie in thelatest finding from Swarm Intelligence research, which finds in some situations diversity trumps ability.

A group of researchers led by Stefan and Jens Krause from Germany, collaborating with academics at the Universities of Bath, Glasgow, Leeds have recently conducted a series of intriguing experiments in some of which, groups of 'experts' performed worse in judgement tasks, than the average population.

In one study carried out by the team led by the Krauses, at the University of Leeds during an Open Day, visitors were asked to estimate the number of beans in 10 differently shaped jars. Each jar contained a randomly generated number of beans between 80 and 1000. Using statistical techniques to analyse the results of this and other similar experiments, groups consisting of'experts', or groups where more weight was attached to an expert opinion, tended to do worse than collectives which were more diverse.

Diversity trumped ability. This strange result is explained possibly by the tendency of experts in this scenario (and others in the real world) to be biased in a certain trend - they tend to make errors in one direction, so pushing their averaged answer to be more wrong than when a group of non-experts' results were averaged. The diverse group tended to make more random errors, or mistakes in all directions, thus cancelling each other out.

This latest Swarm Intelligence study, published in the journal Animal Behaviour (not widely read in Economics common rooms) and entitled 'Swarm intelligence in humans: diversity can trump ability' also explored whether there were particular kinds of problems where more diverse Swarm Intelligence doesn't defeat groupsof experts. Perhaps dilemmas where background technical expertise is essential.

German subjects were asked to estimate how many times a coin needs to be tossed for the probability that the coin will constantly show heads each time, to achieve roughly as small a probability as that of winning the German lottery (have a guess - the correct answer is at the end of the article). The results do indeed show that expert collectives are better than diverse groups at this kind of question - technical knowledge is needed as opposed to judgement, but the problem in other scenarios where diversity beats ability could be that experts tend to overestimate how much of any conundrum is 'technical' as opposed to 'judgement'. After all this bias justifies their demanding the big bucks in exchange for expertise.

But we all exist and survive in groups, from companies to families, and these latest findings point to the most robust teams featuring a mix of talents, rather than a narrow range. Our education system and those who hire, appear focused too much on individual elite talent, rather than what is much more important, how your contribution boosts the team's performance. The essence of good management is after all to select, form, motivate and get the best out of a team with different talents.

So elite financial institutionsin seeking out only the most talented should beware they are adopting astrategy which mother nature itself has rejected over hundreds of thousands of years of our species evolution. But the human race is now running the largest natural experiment in history - with millions and their livelihoods at stake - which tests whether diversity trumps ability; and that experiment is called - China.

If you are sceptical of these latest research findings from Swarm Intelligence, then you'll be backing the narrow elite that runs China to beat the more diverse democratic decision-making of the West and India. If diversity trumps ability, China's system must inevitably fail a 'survival of the fittest' test against democratic and freer competitors. Your investment strategy in relation to China might reveal what your really think in this debate, but, remember, according to this Swarm Intelligence research, evolution has already made up her mind.

The next time you wander out of the narrow confines of the city, look around you, what you see is diversity.

(RE: Coin toss problem - the correct answer is 24)

Around the Web

Swarm intelligence - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Swarm Theory - National Geographic Magazine

Swarm intelligence - Scholarpedia

Amazon.com: Swarm Intelligence (The Morgan Kaufmann Series in ...

Swarm Intelligence: An Interview with Eric Bonabeau - O'Reilly Media