DRMacIver's Notebook

Intelligence problems

Intelligence problems

Here's a draft I abandoned basically because I find this subject extremely stressful to talk about and low-key expect people to shout at me every time I talk about it.

This sucks, because it's an important subject to me that I genuinely think most people I know would benefit from understanding better, so I've decided that even if I can't bring myself to finish this as is I'm just going to post what I've got and hope it's useful to people.

Please don't shout at me about it. I'll be sad.

Unspoken privileges

I need to start with some theory, because it will help contextualise the thing I want to actually talk about today.

The feminist concept of "privilege" is very important and useful, and also tends to get people's backs up because people (including those who are most willing to level it as an accusation at others) rarely like being called privileged.

(Ages ago I saw a proposal to replace the term with "blind spots", but it never caught on. Unclear to what degree that was because it's kinda ableist, and to what degree that was because it was much harder to hurl it as an insult at your opponent in a fight on the internet.)

I tend to use a slightly modified version which replaces "privilege" with "privileges". It's not a question of whether you are or aren't privileged, but instead what privileges you do and don't have. We all have privileges, but some of us have significantly more privileges than others, and many of those privileges are in some way connected to shared characteristics - e.g. I have male privileges, those privileges associated with being male, or with being white, two of the main sources of privilege typically discussed in feminist contexts.

A "privilege" in this context just means any benefit I typically get or, in particular, any source of problems that I get not to have. Anything that makes your life easier or better, and is not reliably shared with everyone else. e.g. due to the aforementioned being white and male, there are a lot of contexts I can just walk into and assume (mostly correctly) that I will be taken seriously and this does indeed make my life easier and better.

But there are a number of privileges that I don't think get talked about enough, because it's considered in poor taste to admit that you have them, and I think this is a major problem because these are also privileges that I think are among the best predictors of success.

The chief unspoken privileges of this form that I'm aware of are being rich, being attractive, and being smart. You're not supposed to talk about them because doing so seems like boasting. It's safe to talk about white privilege, or male privilege, or to some degree middle class privilege, because you're able to talk about them on the assumption that these in some sense "should" be value neutral. But when you talk about wealth, attractiveness, or intelligence, there is always an implied subtext of "These are the privileges I have for being better than you..." and that goes down about as well as you might expect.

This results in a peculiar norm in a lot of lefty spaces where you are supposed to acknowledge all your privileges except for some of the most impactful ones, which you are encouraged to downplay. I consider this a tad suspect.

More importantly, this results in a very distorted view of the world, where people are not properly able to understand the advantages that they have and others lack. I think it's important to understand these clearly, both in order to have more empathy for others and the problems they face, and also to understand the nice problems to have that they bring you.

What is intelligence?

The one I want to talk about today is intelligence. First I need to convince you that intelligence is a real thing. Fortunately, you probably already believe this really, but I'm going to spend some time convincing you of it anyway so that we're on the same page.

First, let's talk about IQ, because a lot of misconceptions about intelligence come down to politically-motivated (in both directions) misunderstandings about IQ.

You've probably heard a lot about how IQ is bullshit. This is generally coming from a very well-intentioned place, but is wrong. There are many exaggerated or incorrect arguments made on the basis of it, but IQ itself is extremely well-validated psychometrics which serves a genuinely useful role, especially for diagnostic purposes during education. e.g. the reason I've had a proper IQ test was to diagnose a learning disability that manifested as having extremely large differences in my verbal and spatial IQs (these gaps have mostly closed now), which has been very helpful for understanding my own thinking.

IQ is not a perfect measure of intelligence by any means, but nobody serious claims it is. I highly recommend the book "Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction" by Ian Deary for a review of the literature, and the strengths and limitations of IQ. It's also just an excellent and very readable example of good science communication.

So... given that, what is IQ?

Well, first off, IQ isn't really one thing. It is a family of different IQ tests all of which are trying to do roughly the same thing and which are normalised to the same distribution of scores, but are imperfectly predictive of each other. That means that if you took two different IQ tests, you would not expect to get the same result on each. This is fine, because IQ is not intended to be an absolute measure of anything in particular, it's a score that indicates general tendencies and is usefully descriptive.

What's it describing? Well, "intelligence" obviously, but what's that?

It is, again, not entirely one thing. And this makes sense, right? If you consider, say, a brilliant scientist and a brilliant novelist, there are clearly different senses in which you'd expect them to be brilliant - e.g. one would be better with words and attention to detail, one with numbers and abstraction.

But, and here is the bit that is perhaps surprising, generally you would also expect each of them to be better at the other's area of brilliance than a typical member of the population. Although they are distinctively brilliant in their different ways, they tend to be better at a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated things.

This is the basic empirical claim that underlies IQ's utility: There are a number of different tests we can perform that you might reasonably consider "tests of intelligence" and, surprisingly, they are typically positively correlated with each other. That is, good performance on one test tends to predict good performance on another, despite the fact that when you compare two people one person can do better on one and worse on another.

A good analogy here might be strength. Someone who can bench press a higher weight than me can probably also do more push ups than me, or more reps in their deadlift at the same weight (None of these are particularly impressive bars to clear, mind, because I desperately need to start going back to the gym).

We could take a number of measures like this and turn them into an SQ, a strength quotient, that measures your aggregate strength, and it would function in very similar ways to an IQ as a general test of ability - for tasks where you wanted someone strong, someone with a higher SQ is typically likely to be better. For a specific strength task and two people with relatively similar SQs it's not terribly surprising if one is much better than the other, but when there is a very large SQ difference you should at least be surprised when the person with the lower SQ outperforms the larger. The world's best dead-lifter and the world bench press record holder probably have quite similar SQs, but sometimes one will be better at something and sometimes the other, but they're both going to be better than me at almost everything strength related.

IQ is similar to our hypothetical SQ, but instead of things like bench press weight, push ups, etc. we instead test things like memory, performing complex tasks under time pressure, speed of generating associations, etc.

It's also different from SQ, in that different things are empirically true about it. e.g. one of the surprising and deeply frustrating facts about IQ is that it mostly seems pretty stable over your lifetime. Some movement is possible (and there is also just random variation based on the particular test you take and what sort of day you're having), but generally IQ seems better at reflecting some underlying hard to influence capabilities than SQ, which responds well to exercise. It's possible that there are some better tests of underlying strength capabilities that are less amenable to training that would make for a similarly stable SQ, but if so I don't know what they are.

The following are things I think are characteristically easier for people with high intelligence:

Facility with these things is something that people genuinely vary on. Most of it improves with practice, but even the ones which improve with practice tend to improve more with practice if you're naturally smart, in much the same way that you get stronger with practice but your build, nutrition, and general genetic makeup determines a lot about how well that works for you.

A wrong but useful analogy here is that smarter people are running their brains on better hardware - e.g. faster processing, more memory, larger hard drive, etc. If you're less smart, you can probably still do everything that a smarter person can do, but at some point the "software" becomes unusably slow to the point where it's too frustrating to be worth doing, at which point you might either have to ask someone else to do it or find an approach better suited to your current strengths (e.g. by externalising more of the process when you hit the limits of what you can do in your head).

Intelligence isn't everything

I want to be clear, I don't think that your intelligence defines you. Many people recognised as geniuses had fairly unremarkable IQs, and many people with high IQs don't achieve anything particularly impressive.

In my anecdotal experience, very few people are bottlenecked on their intelligence, because people tend to naturally gravitate to doing things that are about right for them, so the result is that people are often doing jobs that someone much less smart than them would be bottlenecked on intelligence in, and someone much smarter than them would find very boring, but there's usually a pretty wide band around any given job of people who will basically be fine.

(I think I wanted to include something about how intelligence also doesn't determine your moral worth etc. I don't have anything non-obvious to say here other than duh intelligence doesn't determine your moral worth, and I'm not going to try something long about that now because it will result in me not posting this instead)

Why am I telling you this?

I am telling you this because, if you read my work, I assume you are to some large degree like me. In particular I expect you are smarter than average, possibly significantly so. I say this not to flatter you, it's just really unlikely that you'd be interested in my overly-intellectualised view of the world if that was not the case.

If you're also like me politically or emotionally, you've probably spent a lot of time in denial about the significance of this, and as a result being quite unfair to both yourself and the people around you. I've previously made strong claims about the irrelevance of empirical questions about intelligence and I think these are still mostly right, but miss an important point: It's valid to have this sort of growth mindset attitude to intelligence for your own abilities, but when interacting with other people it results in being unkind and pushy in ways that do not help you or them.

There are things you need to know about how intelligence affects you and others when you are smarter than most of the people around you, and because of the unspoken privilege nature of intelligence probably nobody has ever really sat you down and helped you understand those things. Certainly I was well into my thirties before I finally properly started internalising this.

People are often impressed with things I do - this newsletter and Hypothesis being major examples - and I'm usually inclined to dismiss this. Anyone could do the things I do, right? It's just a matter of hard work, a few tricks, and an interest in doing it.

I do, in fact, think this is true to some degree. Given the right training and willingness to apply themselves, I think most people could do most of the things I do. Also I think it would be vastly harder for them to do so, to the point where it might not be worth it. If I see something instantly that you could see after sitting down for an hour, or even a couple of minutes, it will often be worth me doing things that it's not worth you doing.

When I was younger, this resulted in me being very impatient with people. There were so many things that are so easy that it seemed like nobody could be bothered to do. Did they just not actually care? Were they lazy?

Over time I learned to be less of a dick about it, and just got better at explaining things to others, helping them out, and generally expecting less of them. This was certainly politer than my younger behaviour, but I don't necessarily think it was fairer, because there was always a sort of premise that if I show you how this works then you'll be able to do it as well as me, right?

The result was a great deal of low grade disappointment on my end, because the answer is rarely that they can do the things I am explaining as well as I can. There will be plenty of things they can do better than me, that play to their strengths and interests that I lack, but if it's something I've spent enough time, interest, and effort on (even if it felt this way) to get very good at it, chances are it's actually very hard for them to catch up with me.

I think the result is that over the years I've been, inadvertently, rather discouraging to some people, by telling them that things are easy that aren't easy, or that they can do things that realistically they're never going to do.

"You can do it" is only a reassuring message if they actually can do it, and if you've accurately conveyed the work that it takes to do it. Without that, you're just setting people up for disappointment.

Chances are, you're probably making this mistake too. If you often feel frustrated with the people around you for just not getting it, or for being weirdly slow or bad at things you find easy, it's pretty likely that they're not actually slacking off, those things are just much easier for you than they are for them.

This sucks for you too

If you are significantly smarter than average, either uniformly across the board or in some particular way, your mind literally works differently from the people around you. There's a word for that: Neurodivergence.

There's a general phenomenon of "gifted kid syndrome" that Twitter gets in a furore about every six months where a bunch of smart kids talk about how traumatic they found their childhood experience of that, and the rest of Twitter is about equally divided between calling them entitled tech bros (regardless of whether they are male or work in tech) and going "Oh man this is great I haven't had such a good opportunity to bully nerds in years". Generally there's a large subtext of "You're talking about an advantage, therefore you don't get to complain about the negative consequences of having that advantage for you, because other people have it worse". I am, to put it mildly, not a fan of this messaging.

In general, one of the worst problems with problems that derive from being smarter than the people around you is that they are almost by definition unrelatable, and people try to make you feel bad for having them. This is a central feature of what I call Nice problems to have:

What we generally mean when we say "nice problem to have" is that the preconditions for having this problem are nice to have. i.e. you cannot have this problem unless some other nice thing happens first. This is not at all a reliable predictor of the amount of suffering involved.


The thing is, by definition, "nice problems to have" are ones that are not going to be shared by a lot of people (otherwise the preconditions would just be normal behaviour and it wouldn't be a nice problem to have). As a result:

  1. Most people probably won't be able to relate to it, because their lived experiences will be so different.

  2. People will be envious of you for the nice thing.

Thus the defining characteristic about nice problems to have is not that they are nice, but that you will be afforded no sympathy for having them. Nice problems to have are the opposite of nice: They isolate you from the ability to complain about them, which removes a major bonding activity with people who have not been successful in the same way as you, and also causes you to feel worse about the problems with those who do not share your burden.

The distinguishing feature of high intelligence is that many things are easy for you that are not easy for other people. On the one hand this is great, on the other hand this has the knock on effect that you are constantly under-stimulated, because the world is not designed on the assumption that you find this easy.

In order to get a sense of what this is like, imagine the following: You, as you are now, are forced to attend class with a bunch of 7 year olds doing their times tables. You are required to pay attention. If you do not pay attention, you will be scolded for this. If you explain you already understand the material, you will be scolded for disrupting the class. You have no choice but to sit there, "learning" material you thoroughly understand, day in day out, while those around you struggle with it for reasons you can barely understand and wouldn't be allowed to help with even if you did because that too would be disruptive.

This is pretty much my experience of most classes growing up, and I think that's quite typical for anyone reasonably smart, because classes at school are generally not that hard in the first place. This results in a lot of complaints that are not particularly well received because they sound like normal problems. A lot of modern childhood just is boring, so when someone complains about that experience it sounds like they're complaining about a normal childhood experience (Which, to be clear, is very reasonable to do in its own right. It's extremely bad that childhood is boring), and easy to miss that they are describing a much more boring experience than you're imagining.


This piece is definitely a combination of two problems: It's very stressful to write, and also I as usual had to do a lot of work explaining what I consider very 101 level context. I wish I could write a piece where I don't have to spend the first half of it explaining both "Opression is a real thing" and "Intelligence is a real thing", but a lot of people need one or both of these, and most people who don't need one of these very much need the other - partly this piece was born out of my frustration with having to explain to so many very well intentioned friends of mine that no IQ isn't actually fake I promise.

This is also a good example of explanation as defence - I do tend to over-explain when I get stressed, on the hope that once people see how very reasonable I'm being they won't be mad. This is exactly as bad a strategy as it sounds.

Anyway I'd like to be able to write about things like this that are important and stressful, but apparently I'm not currently able to do that. A pseudonym might help, but it's not currently worth it to me to have writing that isn't well integrated into my main body of work.