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.