IQ and achievement: pinker is kinda right and kinda wrong
In the New York Times, there is an essay by Steven Pinker, who goes after Malcolm Gladwell. Fair enough. Gladwell’s a great writer, but he’s a journalist who loves telling a great story, so he makes an easy target. But I was a little confused after reading this passage:
It is simply not true that [stuff that Pinker accused Gladwell of getting wrong, but Gladwell has a strong defense*] or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.
I was a little struck by this. According to Keith Sawyer’s textbook on creativity, Pinker is wrong. Sadly, I just returned my copy to the library, but my memory is that high achievement in creative areas is not always tied to IQ.
A quick google scholar does back up my memory. For example, the Journal of Creative Behavior has a recent article on a meta-analysis of the correlation between divergent thinking (the ability to conceptualize novel ideas), IQ and achievement. The paper shows that the literature is far from settled on the issue, and that a meta-analysis finds a modest IQ/creative achievemnt correlation, but the correlation depends a lot on specific instruments used. The paper also claims that divergent thinking has a modestly larger correlation with achievement than IQ.
Now, I think that Pinker is still correct in a very important sense. If you look at the entire human population, IQ is going to be a huge predictor of success. Nearly every regression of income and educational attainment that has IQ as a regressor shows a positive correlation. Though I haven’t seen any studies, I’d be shocked if IQ, in the whole population, didn’t predict artistic achievement. One needs substantial intellectual capacity to make a film or write a book. There’s not going to be a threshold effect either.
But I think Pinker may be missing Gladwell and Sawyer’s point: within professions, IQ is probably a weaker predictor and maybe has no link. Why? It’s because high achievement is a multi-stage process. Yes, you need IQ to become a mathematician, but success in scientific and artistic fields also depends on attributes such as emotional control, ability to generate novel ideas, networks, coaching, and academic street smarts. Or, as I’ve said before, you need more than talent. IQ may put you in a position to make an impact, but among people who are in that position, success may be determined by things other than raw analytical capacity.
* Originally, I took Pinker’s word on stuff like the quarterback issue, but if you read Gladwell’s response, the man’s got a point.