Thursday, 23 January 2014

Why is intelligence seen as a gift, but hard work is praised as a virtue?


Edited summary:

The psychological attributes of intelligence and personality are usually seen as being quite distinct in nature. Higher intelligence is usually regarded a ‘gift’, bestowed mostly by heredity, or by favourable conditions.

But personality or ‘character’ is morally evaluated by others, and conscientiousness is praised as a virtue on the assumption that it is mostly a consequence of choice and effort.

So a teacher is more likely to praise a child for their highly Conscientious personality (high ‘C’) – an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty – than for possessing high IQ. And even in science, where high intelligence is greatly valued, it is seen as being more virtuous to be a reliable and steady worker.

Yet it is probable that both IQ and personality traits such as high Conscientiousness are about-equally inherited ‘gifts’. Measured heritability of both are in excess of 0.5. But if imprecision of definition and measurement and random accidents were fully-eliminated from the analysis - heredity for both intelligence and personality would probably be seen as nearly total.

Rankings of both IQ and C are generally stable throughout life (although absolute levels of both will typically increase throughout the lifespan, with IQ peaking in late-teens and C probably peaking in middle age).

Furthermore, high IQ is not just an ability to be used only as required; higher IQ also carries various behavioural predispositions – as reflected in the positive correlation with the personality trait of Openness to Experience; and characteristically ‘left-wing’ or ‘enlightened’ socio-political values among high IQ individuals.

However, IQ is ‘effortless’ while high-C emerges mainly in tough situations where exceptional effort is required. So we probably tend to regard personality in moral terms because this fits with a social system that provides incentives for virtuous behaviour (including Conscientiousness).

In conclusion, high IQ should probably more often be regarded in morally evaluative terms because it is associated with behavioural predispositions; while Conscientiousness should probably be interpreted with more emphasis on its being a gift or natural ability.

In particular, people born with high levels of Conscientiousness are very fortunate in modern societies, since they are usually well-rewarded for this aptitude; while people with low Conscientiousness may find it very hard to hold down any kind of job - even when they are of extremely high intelligence.

This includes modern science and academia, where Conscientiousness is being selected-for much more more rigorously than IQ. The modern 'intellectual elite' is selected to be hard-working, productive, obedient to group norms - but it is not especially bright.

Indeed, taken overall, those ‘gifted’ with high Conscientiousness are much luckier than the very intelligent – because there are far more and better jobs for reliable and hard-working people (even if they are relatively ‘dumb’) than for smart people with undependable personalities.



MC said...

As a former "very high test scores, very low grades" kid, this is one of the top two or three reasons I intend to homeschool my children. The modern school is a terrible environment for a kid who already understands most of the material and isn't interested in filling out worksheets. Because most kids don't do well on tests (by definition, since the expectation is that everyone will be in the top ten percent), the solution is to pile on more homework, to the increasing advantage of the grinders, and the increasing disadvantage of kids like myself. In the seventh grade I would get Ds and Fs and then go home and read Edgar Allen Poe or Robert Frost and the like. At the time I just thought I was a bad kid for not doing the homework, but in retrospect I see that the system was set up for me to fail.

I didn't fully realize this until I entered the working world while still in college. At work, most of the things you are asked to do actually have to be done, and aren't just make-work. A revolutionary concept to a kid raised in the modern education system. I also went on an LDS mission and found to my amazement that I was a very hard worker when I was doing something that actually mattered to me.

Assuming my kids share my character traits to a great extent (though my wife is herself highly conscientious), I can't imagine putting them in a system set up so completely to fail anyone who is more curious about the world than about a letter grade. Learning to work hard is important, but forcing kids to work hard for no obvious purpose than obtaining gold stars strikes me as precisely the wrong way to teach the value of hard work.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC. Indeed. And one of the ways in which highly conscientious people behave is to pile-on the makework - and create evaluation systems that depend on doing it well - as a means of bringing more highly intelligent people down to the level where they can be beaten. This has been the trend in UK education over the past 30 years.

Smart and honest boys have been the main victims (honest, because modern educational evaluations, NOT done under exam conditions, are almost-always cheated - so anyone honest is automatically down-graded).

Anonymous said...

Stephen C said: Until recently (i.e. until 20 years or so ago)I subconsciously thought (based on the "man is created in the image of God" concept found in the Bible) that absolutely everyone started out, of course, very intelligent, and that the sad hardworkers and highscoring non-genius students had probably just frittered that intelligence away due to a desire to be thought admirable, and that the generally ridiculous "I am a genius and a sensitive artist or an inspired scientist" types had usually frittered as much of that intelligence away (in a desire to be popular) as they dared to while still being able to exploit their good looks or marketable insights or charismatic speaking voices, and that the "regular folks" had traded their gift of "image of God" intelligence (as described in the first few chapters of the Bible)for the comfortable privilege of being, more or less, intense and sometimes outgoing but mostly noncommunicative and silent and not-very-helpful-to-the-losers-in-life admirers and enjoyers of "reality." When, long ago, I entered my 30s or 40s and came to the factual realization that God created many people who were probably from the first day of their existence on this earth low-G, low-concern-for-God-religion-or-virtue, and low-compassion people (although still, uncomfortably for me, children of God, to just as much a degree as absolutely the most great of saints in Heaven), I lost a great deal of illusory hopes for my own personal social happiness but gained something more important, something that your post, and MC's compassionate comment, remind me of ..(shorter version - maybe I now think of intelligence as a virtue, and hard work as a gift, and regret my (hopefully temporary) distance from the ideal of both)