If we think of some of the key characteristics of success, perhaps at the top of the pile is our intelligence. This fits in with the meritocratic view of the world that dominates western life. It’s a view that researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Minnesota and Heidelberg believe is spot on. In a recent published paper, they find that intelligence is more important than personality in determining our success in life.
The research consisted of a series of games that were designed to explore the kind of factors that typically contribute to cooperative behaviors, whether in professional or personal circumstances.
The study found that intelligence was directly linked to our willingness to cooperate, with people who had a higher IQ significantly more likely to cooperate than their less intelligent peers. This more cooperative behavior subsequently resulted in those people earning more money via the various games.
Thinking through our actions
The authors suggest that people with lower intelligence were less able to think through the consequences of their actions, which in turn resulted in them not following a consistent strategy.
That’s not to say that personality traits were inconsequential, but the study found that they only had an impact on outcomes early on in the games, after which intelligence was the dominant factor in success or failure.
“We wanted to explore what factors make us effective social animals. In other words, what enables us to behave optimally in situations when cooperation is potentially beneficial not only to us, but to our neighbours, people in the same country or who share the same planet,” the authors say. “People might naturally presume that people who are nice, conscientious and generous are automatically more cooperative. But, through our research, we find overwhelming support for the idea that intelligence is the primary condition for a socially cohesive, cooperative society. A good heart and good behaviour have an effect too but it’s transitory and small.”
The study found that an additional benefit of higher intelligence appeared to be a pronounced ability to process information quickly. This allowed participants to accumulate a more varied and extensive range of experiences, and the subsequent ability to learn from these experiences and become better people. In a work environment, this would translate into higher earnings and greater success.
The authors believe their findings have wider implications, especially in areas such as international trade, where they overwhelmingly support open and cooperative trading policies.
“The core principle of working cooperatively and seeing the bigger picture also applies to international trade, where there is overwhelming evidence that free trade is a non-zero sum game i.e. all parties could benefit,” they explain.
The games involved in the study were typical game theory staples, including the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Stag Hunt. Whenever success in the game was determined by trading off current gains with future gains, those with higher IQ prevailed in the vast majority of circumstances.
Intelligence and trust
This should perhaps come as no surprise, for a 2014 study published in PLOS ONE, set out to explore any possible links between our intellect and our ability to trust other people.
The basis of the study was the General Social Survey, which seeks to characterize the population according to attitudes and characteristics. Of particular interest was the notion of generalised trust, or trust of unknown members of society.
Participants in the survey were asked “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?”
Perhaps not surprisingly it emerged that those who were more trusting were also happier and higher levels of physical health. What was equally interesting however was that intelligence was a good indicator of trusting others.
“Intelligence is shown to be linked with trusting others, even after taking into account factors like marital status, education and income. This finding supports what other researchers have argued, namely that being a good judge of character is a distinct part of human intelligence which evolved through natural selection.” the study’s lead author, Noah Carl of Oxford University, said.
It’s become rather unfashionable to use intelligence as a means by which we can gauge the effectiveness of an individual, but these studies suggest that perhaps it’s something that we need to reconsider.