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Dealing with the Reality That Not Everyone Can Succeed

As a society, we’ve failed to confront a reality that has emerged time and again from psychological research. Two traits — general intelligence and self-control — are perhaps our best individual level predictors of living a successful life. More on what “successful” means momentarily. However, failure to appreciate the reach of intelligence and self-control, though troublesome in the past, will become increasingly problematic as our modern American economy becomes ever more technological and our economy ever more global. In fact, had we appreciated the importance of these traits more fully in the decades leading up to now, we might have foreseen more clearly the rise of a Donald J. Trump style presidential candidate.

What does it mean to live a successful life? Quite frankly, it can mean a lot of things. I’m not referring in this case to having any particular occupation, level of education, income, or living in any particular region of the country. By “living a successful life” I mean that when possible, avoiding the many negative occurrences that can creep up. Avoiding contracting certain illnesses, avoiding contact with the criminal justice system, avoiding financial ruin, those types of things.

But it’s more than just avoiding the bad things in life. Success also means succeeding at whatever it is we’re doing. Finding a job you enjoy (or even just tolerate), keeping it for as long as you desire, and perhaps promoting up through the ranks of your employment. There is much flexibility in the definition of “success”, but there are clearly certain lifestyles that are objectively less successful than others. How do we avoid those lifestyles?

As I’ve mentioned, behavioral scientists that work on this topic have a pretty good handle on the answer. I’ll start first with general intelligence. Though often maligned by commentators, general intelligence (or IQ) is a trait that psychologists have studied for the better part of a century. Our understanding of it rocketed forward when Charles Spearman proposed his general theory of intelligence, which was remarkably simple. Linda Gottfredson, in fact, best summed it up when she noted:

Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. It is not merely book-learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings, ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.

Yes, intelligence is a controversial topic. But it has also been closely scrutinized for decades now, and the results are quite impressive. Stuart Ritchie detailed many of them in a brisk, very accessible book recently. As he noted, intelligence is not some vague social construct that we (academics) conjured up. Intelligence is a trait that emerges very early in life and is linked directly to brain functioning. We measure it very well, and it predicts important life outcomes. In particular, as intelligence increases, occupational success goes up, income earned goes up, educational attainment goes up, odds of getting arrested go down, violent behavior goes down, and life expectancy increases.

We can move now to our second trait; self-control. Behavioral researchers actually use different names sometimes when studying this trait — executive functioning or gratification delay — but for the most part these denote an ability to manage impulses and to delay getting what you want right now in favor of getting a better version of it down the road. Saving for retirement, saving money period, going to college, showing up consistently to your job, all of these are indicative of having low levels of impulsivity (high self-control).

Like intelligence, we have a wealth of good research regarding self-control. People with high impulsivity are more likely to break the law, get arrested, use drugs, have poor health, and be obese. A rather incredible study, published by the psychologist Terrie Moffitt and her team, examined the effects of self-control across decades of life. Individuals with higher self-control were simply better off in the long run. They made more money and were generally healthier and more productive citizenry as adults. But what makes all of this so relevant to the current discussion is that self-control and intelligence are highly correlated. The two traits — both linked to brain functioning — often come packaged together.

So why would this be particularly relevant to our current situation in 2017 America and beyond? As anyone can clearly observe, our society thrives now on innovation and technology. Thriving in an economy that is increasingly technology based is difficult, and requires many of the skills that are marshaled by intelligence and self-control. This dilemma was chronicled recently in a book called Coming Apart. In it, Charles Murray argued for the existence of a new class structure in society. One based not on socioeconomic status and wealth, as much as it was on cognitive ability.

At the top of the new class structure are the “cognitive elites” a group populating the halls of governmental power, the media, Silicon Valley, and generally stationed along each respective coastline in America. These are the trendsetters, the newsmakers, and the cultural shapers. As our economy has shifted to one in which intellectually demanding professions are increasing in number, individuals with the ability to do these jobs are handsomely rewarded. With a decline in manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs, and perhaps also the diminished prestige of such jobs, some individuals have been increasingly been left out in the cold. Feeling ever imperiled, and ever sneered at by the other members of society, one might imagine how a block of individuals with less than appealing life prospects voted what (seemed to be) their interests in the form of one, Donald J. Trump.

In the decades preceding the 1960s, according to Murray, there was an increasingly intermingled quality to American society, and an economy that was not yet too technological, but was quickly moving in that direction. Many exceedingly bright people never went to college, and lived their lives comfortably (often in the same neighborhood) with people less bright than them. And there were jobs that people of all range of ability could do. Perhaps this is not as much the case anymore. Our failure to talk seriously about individual differences in key traits — like intelligence and self-control — has come with consequences. In particular, it leads us to mistakenly assume that all Americans have the same ability to succeed in a modern, technological economy. Such a proposition is simply not true, and there is no evidence to support it.

That said, does recognizing the relevance of individual difference mean that we stop worrying about structural barriers to success in our society? Absolutely not. Many things can be true at the same time. It is true that millions of Americans, by virtue of only their skin color or gender have had artificial blockades placed in front of them. It did not matter how smart they were, success was forbidden to them. This is a malfeasance that we should continually try to remedy any chance we get. Moreover, sometimes events beyond our control disrupt our lives. The recent financial collapse is one example, when a confluence of events derailed the lives of millions of Americans. We should do whatever we can to prevent corporate misbehavior from wreaking such havoc in the future.

Yet, we should do all of this without forgetting that ability and perseverance differ in the population (in large part, for genetic reasons). We owe it to our citizenry to take that seriously too, and to think clearly and intently about how we can create a society where all Americans can flourish, regardless of the differences in ability that exist. This is a hard problem, and we’ve wasted enough time ignoring it.


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1



  1. Good article yet it’s not clear to me what motivators you’re suggesting for the pursuit of a society in which everyone can flourish. To me, embracing the fact that cognitive abilities are unevenly distributed, ie. the world is unfair, and that not everyone can succeed does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that resources should be spent reversing social decantation. If we cater to everyone’s abilities, aren’t we then artificially preserving less adapted traits? Also what incentives are you offering the intellectual elite to work at essentially forfeiting their advantages?

    • I think there are several primary arguments for the pursuit of a society in which everyone can flourish (or at least not suffer).

      First, simple empathy. If people have more than they need and allow others to suffer, this is a failure of humanity. Just because nature is Darwinian doesn’t mean human society need be. There are certainly evolutionary consequences to our decisions, but we’re not anywhere near being able to predict them. We can’t even really measure present day abilities with any degree of accuracy–IQ is a great tool, but there is no good measurement for self control or the many other variables that lead to other kinds of success. In the meantime, compassion and opportunity have served contemporary humanity remarkably well.

      But on a more practical level, the intellectual elite should forfeit some advantages for the sake of societal stability. I think this is implicitly a part of Boutwell’s argument, that our failure to properly anticipate suffering and prepare for it is largely responsible for the societal regression represented by Trump. There will be other consequences, and they will harm everyone, even the elite. In other words; like it or not, we’re all in this together. Failing to take note of that will only lead to regression, revolt, or societal destruction.

      • I was debating with myself whether I should preemptively argue against empathy as a motivator. How can Darwinism lack empathy or humanity if those qualities emerged from it? Yes I agree with you, empathy has been instrumental in our success as a species. However, certain properties or faculties of an organism which are assets in one environment can become liabilities in another. That certainly seems to be the case for empathy in our globalized world (“The case against empathy” is a good read on this topic).

        I would argue that there is only the pragmatic level with self-interest or -preservation the only true motivators. Like you say “we’re all in this together”. A zero-sum game finds every player equally involved. Everyone gains from a stable and happy society.
        However, the fact that we need to invoke empathy instead or speaking openly about what truly motivates us, namely self-interest, bothers me profoundly. The German word “Hintergedanke” (literally a behind-thought, or an ulterior motive) describes it best.
        My point is that those on the right side of the evolutionary fence naturally gravitate towards a darwinian or eugenics worldview but deem it necessary to disguise it as empathy. And those on the other side of the fence do the same. Liberal and egalitarian agendas have always been attempts at leveling the playing field and artificially increase everyone’s chances (with of course higher gains the further beneath the average one finds himself).

        Maybe we would gain from more discernment about what really motivates us. After all, this whole thing might turn out to be a non-zero sum game.

      • Joe B says

        could you name a human society that has existed that was not “Darwinian”? What is your evidence this can be achieved and at what cost?

    • Miranda says

      Empathy is strategic. Perhaps if the “intellectual elites” had been more empathetic towards those now railing against them, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now – the “most powerful nation on earth” shooting itself in the foot by electing a narcissistic goon for president and consequently being ridiculed around the globe.

      The world and its peoples are constantly shifting. Who’s to say we won’t one day go back to needing people with more rote, mechanical skills. Who might remember how they were treated when the “intellectual elites” left them to suffer. A worldwide environmental disaster, for instance, could profoundly affect the global social order in ways we can’t predict.

      A lot of people like to dismiss kindness, empathy, and sensitivity as weak. But they are actually often wise moves, if not overdone of course – people are more likely to return kindness with kindness then they are to return cruelty and insensitivity with kindness. Tit-for-tat.

    • ABL~

      “If we cater to everyone’s abilities, aren’t we then artificially preserving less adapted traits?”

      No – we’re not. Whatever you are calling “abilities” I highly doubt they correspond to reduced reproductive fitness – the sole arbiter of adaptedness.


      This article tries to be high-minded but misses the most important predictors of a successful life. It’s clear that the most accurate predictor of having a successful life is to be the product of a lineage of successful lives. In a word, it’s the result of a stochastic process commonly referred to as, luck.

      Whatever heritable traits you possess were acquired independently of anything you’ve done. Whatever advantages or lack thereof you have are the province of your history. It is probably equally explanatory to say that a successful life is largely dependent on self-confidence, persistence, and good fortune.

      In general, we successful life-havers are far too self-congratulatory. If we see our own fortunes as ultimately tied to the fortunes of those around us, we probably ought to do something to positively affect human flourishing – broadly construed.

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  3. Great essay!

    Two traits — general intelligence and self-control — are perhaps our best individual level predictors of living a successful life

    Yes. This is in addition to other heritable traits (e.g., attractiveness).

    Supremely relevant to your discussion is this talk by Gregory Clark:

    We owe it to our citizenry to take that seriously too, and to think clearly and intently about how we can create a society where all Americans can flourish, regardless of the differences in ability that exist.

    Clark suggests a solution to that problem, really the only to make that happen for those on the low end of the ability scale.

    • A very interesting lecture, perhaps because the burden of the argument, “the best estimate of the intergenerational correlation of social status is around .7,” has been true in the male line of my ancestry since the mid-17th C; the majority were ministers, judges, majors or colonels, lawyers, estate managers, engineers and the like – I do seem to come from a long line mid-to upper level managers. Some slipped out in every generation but the majority did not. As they were in Sweden, so they became in the US.

      The problem is how to prevent a natural elite from becoming an aristocracy.

      Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony is an interesting case study. It was a colony where almost everybody was above average compared to the population left behind in England because, except for a few servents (certainly less than 15%), all of the other settlers came from the 20% of English society just below the titled aristocracy. The majority were literate free-holding yeomen and the next largest group were what was then called gentlemen of trade and the professions.

      Very early on, in 1632, the gentlemen and the named grantees in the Charter of 1628 attempted assert political control of the colony. The settlers stopped them and established a republic of church-towns whereby the only qualification for voting was membership in a church. They forced their elected magistrates to tell their noble Puritan sponsors back in England, the Earls of Lincoln and Warwick and Lord Saye and Sele, that there would be no hereditary aristocracy in New England and they made it a point of not electing the same people to the same office for more than two consecutive terms. Thus, John Winthrop, who was always very popular, tended to be governor for a year or two and then intentionally kept out of office for a few years. In 1641, the settlers forced the magistrates to adopt a constitution, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, and the colony became a recognizable constitutional democrat republic, a model that very strongly influenced the other colonies.

      After 1640 and until 1750, there was almost no immigration into New England and New Englanders were, to according to David Hackett Fisher, the healthiest, wealthiest and the most literate population in the world at the time.

      The current problem is that success seems to be strongly linked to IQ and, in any large population, IQ follows a natural or Gaussian distribution. People with an IQ greater than one standard deviation above the mean will account for only about 17% of any large population. It also seems to be true that all of the glittering opportunities in our so called knowledge based global economy are open only to those with IQs <1 sd above the mean. What to do with the rest?

      I think experience teaches us that people don't do well with enforced idleness and social isolation. So, we want people to be both employed and participants in their communities. I think that ultimately, we are going to have to employ make work solutions like the CCC, WPA and the draft. I also think all immigration needs to stopped and we should be thinking about ways to get the population of the US back down to about 250 million.

  4. Well expressed, and sensitively expressed. My response is directed to your last paragraph.

    This will seem like a non-sequitur, but being able to “create a society where all Americans can flourish…” will not be possible until a small but critical mass of your peers (i.e., the cognitive elite) take on the thankless task of changing the way our society thinks about the concept of self-governance. More specifically, makes our society aware that there are two distinct ways our voters can practice democracy.

    By way of explanation…

    IF we: 1) define a new concept, competent self-governance (CSG), as the ability of a free society’s voters to keep their national legislature continuously filled with a steady supply of legislators (liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, in America’s case) who possess the skill sets and selfless motives we typically associate with that of a philosopher king or queen (PKQ), 2) satisfy ourselves that CSG is an easy to teach easy to learn “civic” skill, 3) also satisfy ourselves that a PKQ-controlled Congress would be able to easily craft and pass a wide array of qualitatively superior (by magnitudes) legislation which would actually solve most of our nation’s major economic, financial, fiscal and societal problems – fyi: legislation that voters from across the political ideological spectrum would strongly support, and 4) conservatively estimate that there are roughly one million Americans who have the governing qualities and selfless motives of a philosopher king or queen, which is enough to keep Congress filled with liberal Democratic and conservative Republican PKQs for the next eight thousand years (give or take)…

    THEN two of the many questions that MIGHT come to an inquisitive person’s mind are:

    1. Why it has never occurred to our political science and civics teachers — or, more broadly, to our best and brightest political thinkers, visionaries, etc. — to teach this amazingly useful, and astoundingly powerful skill to our nation’s students (and voters)?
    2. Assuming that the initial reaction to the idea of CSG of 99.99% of every high (and average) IQ individual will be along the lines of: “That’s an interesting idea/concept, but way too idealistic (= never gonna happen)” — what is your intellectual, emotional and civic reaction to the fact that if a small but critical mass of the dubious 99.99%-ers simply supported this idealistic idea — either actively in their social media domain, or by liking or following my website — it would quickly stop being an idealistic idea and become the (obvious) idea whose time has come? And in practically no time, relatively speaking, we would see our electorate accomplish the impossible: take the logical next evolutionary step in the way a free people engage in the process of self-governance.

    And within a few short years after that, we would begin living in a society where all Americans WERE flourishing.

  5. Mark Dunaway says

    We should do whatever we can to prevent corporate misbehavior from wreaking such havoc in the future.

    Should we also do whatever is prudent to prevent Government from wreaking such havoc in the future?

    In 1929, there was a Stock Crash. Government reaction, largely Smoot-Hawley, turned a short-term stock crash into a longer-term Great Depression.

    The 2008 Financial Crisis has its underpinnings in the 2007 Housing Crisis driven by HUD pushing Freddie and Fannie to do unnatural and risky things.

    In each case, K Street blamed Wall Street, and fooled Main Street. Let’s help correct the record so we watch and monitor the right things…

    • Mark~ It’s interesting… I wish you could clarify.

      In the 2008 crisis/recession what role did the financial institutions who knowing bundled bad loans and shorted the market play?

      Do you mean to insinuate that HUD programs to promote home ownership among lower income Americans in some way justifies the machiavellian activities of Wall St?

      Are you saying that government intervention in markets is a priori bad because it enables unethical and illegal activities by banks and financial institutions?

      Ergo the government should stay out of market intervention because the magical free-market would never allow huge institutions to game the system by writing and comidifying bad loans and selling them as grade A securities otherwise?

      Errr. OK.

  6. Katy M. says

    As a high school teacher, every bit of this rings true. Especially the taboo of discussing intelligence as it relates to attainment. Urban schools in particular specialize in putting policies in place that reward a lack of self-control (no due dates for assignments, relaxed disciplinary standards) as well foster the idea that intelligence is an insignificant predictor of outcomes (AP for All, untracked classes).

    Urban students of color are also reminded, at every turn, that they are victims. As the author writes, “It is true that millions of Americans, by virtue of only their skin color or gender have had artificial blockades placed in front of them. It did not matter how smart they were, success was forbidden to them. This is an malfeasance that we should continually try to remedy any chance we get.” Is there value in continually reinforcing this rather than developing skills that can aid students in navigating these artificial blockades?

    • Simon says

      Its important to remember that IQ tests were designed to be correlated with educational attainment (that was their original purpose). FYI

      • Could you provide evidence to back that up? I always thought that IQ tests were created to mearue intelligence regardless of educational level.

        • Simon says

          Google Alfred Binet. First IQ tests designed to allow teachers a simple and quick way of identifying students who may struggle. Its absolutely tautological to argue that performance on IQ tests are independently associated with educational outcomes.

    • This is a core problem wrapped up in the Black Lives Matter movement. Starting as a reaction to police shootings, it has morphed into your point of widespread feelings of victimization by a majority of blacks in America.

      The essay itself both counters the premise of discrimination and supports it, meaning that those with lower abilities also matter, if only for utilitarian reasons. Yet we have no system that can fortify those with coginitive and behavioral impediments. Governmental compensation makes matters worse and this could be true for the basic income concept.

      What does it mean in the real world of “developing skills that can aid students” where the blockades are NOT artificial (This concern is based on the belief that we are doing about as well as we can to equip those who have capabilities but were born into the wrong environment)?

      This looks very dire.

  7. Are there specific reasons why these issues loom larger for denizens of the US than in other advanced nations? The right wing in the US goes out of its way to hammer into our minds that any failure is the individual’s fault and that any kind of advancement of the social safety net amounts to socialism (which is “bad”) and even the poor, unintelligent, uncontrolled right-leaning people are convinced that they need protection from the disturbing advance of liberals and their ungodly ways.

  8. Perhaps one problem in the US is that our citizenry basically hates intellectuals. The smarter you are, the lesser you are liked. I can only imagine the reaction when we start discussing that you are too dumb to thrive in our economy. Good luck with that.

  9. There are three things that are required (although proportions will vary) for success: Intelligence, attitude, and opportunity. 100 years ago, it would not matter how innately intelligent one was or how hard one was willing to work if the closest high school was a four hour walk away (I am talking about my grandfather). 60 years ago, you could be a brilliant female, and the best you could do would be a nurse or a teacher. Now, opportunity is everywhere. It doesn’t matter how poor one’s family is, or what sex one is, one can attend Princeton or Harvard Medical School if one is smart enough and works hard enough.

    Our society is stratifying by the grouping of intelligence, attitude, and opportunity. That is not a bad thing, as those who work hard deserve their rewards. What we need to do is to make sure that opportunity is indeed open to everyone with merit, and to keep the lower classes’ expectations in check. We really should move to a different kind of democracy, similar to the Roman Republic, where the upper classes have more relative vote. The rationale of course is that it is the upper class that increases the standard of living of the lower class without the lower class having to put any effort into it.

    The grand bargain of society needs to be: You won’t starve or freeze to death as long as you have a full time job, and if your children have merit, they can become anything.

  10. I understand the sentiment of this article, but it’s especially dangerous to not fall into a specific kind of fatalism that denies hope to those that have lost hope in themselves. The scientific literature of genetic determinism of IQ and delayed gratification is compelling work, but it does not necessarily describe individuals who become very disciplined and turn their life around after living a very impulsive life. Similarly, there is documentation in scientific literature of people with average IQs that do well in high-skill and cerebral careers like computer programming and compete in impressive ELO ratings in chess. The realm of possibility is vast, and we would do well to not internalize a message that implies some people who look and act genetically doomed are indeed genetically doomed.

  11. The illiteracy of the 21st century is the inability to learn, unlearn, and then relearn. Specifically, mental dynamism. Also, the Big 5 personality traits: Openness, Consciousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Self-esteem, and finally, resilience. These are all important factors.

    Still, since technological improvement is exponential, then like chess the name of the game is not making a mistake, since we will all succeed if we just wait for abundance to overtake scarcity in our future. It is difficult to comprehend how fast and different the near future will be.

    By mid-century it is expected that artificial intelligence will become smarter than humans. Furthermore, in about 15 years the synthetic neocortex extender is expected to emerge, which is the next state in human evolution.

    • Yes, it’s puzzling. I’m pretty sure if you survey those particular “college educated whites” you will find that they are sadly mistaken about most of the important facts of economy and history, and a lot of them are confident Jesus will return in the next few decades.

      • Postmodernism
        Biological sex doesn’t exist
        Feminist Glaciology
        Yoga is racist

        All from college educated non-Trump voters.

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