View from Brussels: How hive-minded is your country?

Intelligent people are more cooperative; high IQ societies are more successful: an intriguing popular science book that argues that no man is an island.

It’s unsurprising that the book ‘Hive Mind’ by Professor Garett Jones is not better known, as it deals with the sensitive subjects of national IQs, prosperity and productivity.

But it’s very well-written, and well-sourced, with social science papers from academics at a respectable universities, and the author, at economist at George Mason University in Virginia, puts it together in a convincing way. Of course, social science is not a hard science and there are many other theories competing for the truth about human nature. Maybe someone, somewhere, someday will synthesise all it all – Marxism, capitalism, evolutionary psychology, behavioural economics and other tricky subjects, whatever emerges from the fertile brains of Steven Pinker and Naseem Talib – into one great truth. For now, we just look have to look at partial attempts. Different stabs in the dark.

So what is the author trying to say? His point is that individual IQs are not great predictors of economic and life success for an individual – everyone knows the smart guy from school who never quite made it – but that average IQs over a nation are surprisingly good correlates to prosperity. Why isn’t the relationship the other way round? Well, the tests are culture-neutral: multiple choice diagrams known as Raven Matrices where the viewer selects the most appropriate pattern based on the pattern discerned from the previous three diagrams in the sequence. So it’s non-verbal and non-cultural/education context-based.

He gets over the racist accusation by making a big deal out of the Flynn effect, named after a social scientist who found that IQs have increased greatly in many parts of the world in the last 70 years. In other words, IQ is a fluid social measure, mostly not if at all genetic and racial in origin. For instance, the West and East Germans evolved different national average IQs over the course of their 40-year political separation even though they were genetically identical.

That is not to say there is no genetic component to intelligence.

For instance, Ashkenazi Jews, who regularly score 10-15 IQ points higher than national European average of 100, were persecuted in the middle ages and there were reproductive selection pressures as well as an ethos of peaceful meritocracy in the banking professions they were forced into.  But, taking Flynn’s work to be the truth, the obvious main cause is social and environmental – Flynn’s own thesis was that the increasing trend of manipulation of intellectual themes that characterises the modern industrial society makes life more like an IQ test and so people score better on it.  There are likely to be other causes, including health and environment-related ones. Among the many other theories advanced in the book, one is the disappearance of lead in petrol. Africa has the lowest national IQs and it was the last continent to phase out lead in petrol.

Anyway intelligence is important, especially in a collective body of people, and his argument is certainly original – in an obvious way when you think about it – and could change people’s minds. Especially those who are still stuck in an understanding of economics  based on Adam Smith’s power of the invisible hand, the vulgarisation of which concept says we are all individualistic islands, responsible for our own prosperity only.

Because his second, rather sweeping, premise is that many, perhaps most, transactions in society are a game-theoretical prisoner’s dilemmas. There is, in every societal transaction, a win-win situation based on mutual cooperation, and win-lose situations that bring short-term gain for the defector, the cheater, but when the deceived party catches up, they both end up in a lose-lose situation of mutual non-cooperation.  And success in life is based not on being selfish but having regard for the other player. 

To give an example of a game theory simulation off the top of my head (the book has many more): the traffic jam problem. If everyone takes a car to work in a city like London, you have traffic jams and everyone is worse off. If everyone takes public transport then you get there in a reasonable amount of time as buses race down empty roads. But the best option for the individual is if everyone except you takes public transport while you get there first in your car. But of course having done so, everyone else will be encouraged to defect as well and now you get traffic jams again. 

IQ tests are common at universities and so are game theory simulations, at social science labs, and Jones’s original contribution appears to be to run the two together: he finds a strong correlation between IQ and propensity to collaborate, to be the nice guy in game theory simulations. (In social science labs it involves trust games and financial stakes, where the conflict is between short-term big pay-off for the cheater in a simultaneous choice situation, and long-term rewards for everyone if everyone cooperates.)

It is not about being naïve, but starting off in a cooperative manner, rationally expecting the other person to do the same. Tests show that people with high IQs are much more patient about long term rewards, and then able to look at the consequences in the long term, which might be one reason why they appreciate the short-term cost benefit and long-term cost of their defection and how impulsive behaviour will get you one over the opponent but will fail in the long run.

Here’s another insight that Professor Jones argues follows from this, which engineers may recognise: the importance of forming highly intelligent teams, working together. A bad team-mate can create an atmosphere promoting defection among all the others as well. Jones’s argument can’t quite be summed up in a blog post but, basically, the logic of it is that rather than mix teams with good and bad people, its best to have high-IQ elites working together. He brings up the ‘O-ring theory of teams’, with reference to the famous space shuttle disaster where just one small thing went wrong in an insanely complex piece of technology.  The more advanced your project, the less you can afford to have anything less than total excellence – defection in terms of negligence messes up the product. Groups are only as strong as their weakest link. As such, his theory goes against much of the egalitarian ethos of modern western society, which celebrates diversity in all its forms over elitism. 

You could say the author makes arguments that upend some moral philosophy and popular discourse, in that he makes the argument that intelligent people also good people – if nothing else, out of self-interest, because they calculate that choosing the non-cooperative option will hit back at them. Many people might say that intelligence and good character are not related, completely independent variables, or alternatively argue they are even inversely related, in that intelligent people with a more sophisticated theory of mind can work out what the other person is thinking and exploit the less clever.

Maybe that is one vector of potential criticism. And I haven’t seen the argument addressing the following, which in my view is the great weakness in the book. What is to say intelligent people won’t form oligarchies that are mutually beneficial and indeed decent and cooperative to other members, but which either consciously or unconsciously exploit outsiders – perhaps less intelligent outsiders?  

Anyway if nations are gigantic interlocking webs of game theory in action then intelligent nations are more likely to recycle, comply with vaccination programmes, pay their taxes, promote public transport, and so on.

Britain’s national IQ is 100. In European terms, Britain is less intelligent than some countries, more intelligent than others. Which doesn’t quite fit in with Jones’s theory. To take a banal example, Britons go the recycling bin a lot less than Scandinavians and Germans – recycling being a perfect example of game theory in action –  but have a one IQ point advantage over these countries.  But perhaps that is just quibbling.  Professor Jones’s solution is education and things like better nutrition to raise a nation’s IQ over a generation.  A minority of social scientists would still argue it’s still mainly about genetics.  But the main point is that intelligent people are better cooperators. They strive for win-win situations.

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