Income, wealth, intelligence and the fall of the American empire

Arcand‘s latest movie (the Fall of the American Empire) depicts a young man (Pierre-Paul Daoust) who is supposedly very intelligent, but not very wealthy. The movie begins with the character explaining that intelligence actually gets in the way of success.

I have certainly met my share of folks who must have very high intelligence and who are not particularly wealthy. There are many interesting intellectuals like Grigori Perelman who are obviously three standard deviations above the average in intelligence, but not in wealth.

What does the research says about this? Psychologists measure intelligence using IQ tests.

There is much evidence that people with a higher IQ have a higher income. The correlation is relatively high (between 0.3 and 0.4). And the elite are largely drawn from the intellectually gifted.

But wait! Income is not the same thing as wealth… the impact of IQ scores on net worth after accounting for other factors is either zero or close to zero, according to economist Jay Zagorsky. Sadly, this is a single study from 2007 and I could not find any relevant follow-up work to validate the analysis.

All and all, I can find no evidence that a high intelligence is an obstacle in the quest for success.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the Université du Québec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “Income, wealth, intelligence and the fall of the American empire”

  1. Becoming wealthy is similar to losing weight in that is largely a problem of behavioral modification. Most people know what is required in principle and could execute in theory but find it difficult to make the long term behavioral changes required to succeed. Intelligence can enable you to become more efficient at acquiring wealth but won’t, by itself, generate wealth.

    I can’t imagine how high intelligence would be an obstacle to being wealthy but I can easily imagine it having little effect if the person’s behavior was adverse to wealth accumulation.

  2. Perhaps high intelligence impedes ones ability to become monomaniacal, so the typical way of being of the extremely wealthy is unavailable. After all, focusing all one’s mental energy on the accumulation of wealth seems very limiting. I get bored easily, and want new problems/diversions all the time. Once I have “enough”, money holds little interest for me.

    1. I get bored easily, and want new problems/diversions all the time.

      Right. So net worth might have more to do with personality than intelligence. Of course, you probably do need some level of intelligence to acquire wealth, but it is maybe more of a potential than a drive.

  3. “The movie begins with the character explaining that intelligence actually gets in the way of success. […] I have certainly met my share of folks who must have very high intelligence and who are not particularly wealthy. […] All and all, I can find no evidence that a high intelligence is an obstacle in the quest for success.”

    Wealth and success are not the same. To be successful is to reach one’s goals. Wealth may not necessarily be one’s goal.

    I would expect an intelligent person to view wealth as a means to reaching a goal, not as a goal in itself. For certain goals, wealth may not be the best means for reaching the goal.

    In general, intelligence is, almost by definition, something that helps one to reach one’s goals. That is, intelligence tends to lead to success. If intelligence did not tend to lead to success, then it would be intelligent to be unintelligent.

    I would expect intelligence and wealth to be correlated to the degree that wealth facilitates reaching goals. For many goals, an average amount of wealth might be entirely sufficient. Too much wealth might be a distraction from more important goals.

  4. Wealth and success are not the same.

    That is true, but the correct question is: “if you are so smart, why aren’t you rich enough to do everything you need to do?” You and I might have enough money, but in the movie, the main character is short on cash.

    I encourage you to watch the movie.

  5. folks who must have very high intelligence and who are not
    particularly wealthy

    Ted Kaczynski (aka Unabomber) would be another example.

    This may be another “personality” point, but those “intelligent” people who failed to became wealthy (or wealthy enough to be comfortable) due to their output probably have a certain view about a better world or progress.

    Also, there’s probably an issue about domain expertise. The chess master Magnus Carlsen beat the richest man Bill Gates in 9 moves in chess, but most people aren’t that interested in chess (compared to, say, business software), so Carlsen doesn’t/can’t become nearly as rich (while playing chess).

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