All about IQ

IQ is an increasingly controversial topic these days. I find that when it comes up, different people seem to be extremely confident in wildly different beliefs about the nature of IQ as a measure of intelligence.

Part of this has to do with education. This paper analyzed the top 29 most used introductory psychology textbooks and “found that 79.3% of textbooks contained inaccurate statements and 79.3% had logical fallacies in their sections about intelligence.” [1]

This is pretty insane, and sounds kinda like something you’d hear from an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theorist. But if you look at what the world’s experts on human intelligence say about public opinion on intelligence, they’re all in agreement: misinformation about IQ is everywhere. It’s gotten to the point where world-famous respected psychologists like Steven Pinker are being blasted as racists in articles in mainstream news outlets for citing basic points of consensus in the scientific literature.

The reasons for this are pretty clear… people are worried about nasty social and political implications of true facts about IQ. There are worthwhile points to be made about morally hazardous beliefs and the possibility that some truths should not be publicly known. At the same time, the quantification and study of human intelligence is absurdly important. The difference between us and the rest of the animal world, the types of possible futures that are open to us as a civilization, the ability to understand the structure of the universe and manipulate it to our ends; these are the types of things that the subject of human intelligence touches on. In short, intelligence is how we accomplish anything as a civilization, and the prospect of missing out on ways to reliably intervene and enhance it because we avoided or covered up research that revealed some inconvenient truths seems really bad to me.

Overall, I lean towards thinking that the misinformation is so great, and the truth so important, that it’s worthwhile to attempt to clear things up. So! The purpose of this post is just to sort through some of the mess and come up with a concise and referenced list of some of the most important things we know about IQ and intelligence.

IQ Basics

  • The most replicated finding in all of psychology is that good performance on virtually all cognitively demanding tasks is positively correlated. The name for whatever cognitive faculty causes this correlation is “general intelligence”, or g.
  • A definition of intelligence from 52 prominent intelligence researchers: [2]

Intelligence is a very general 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. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well.

  • IQ tests are among the most reliable and valid of all psychological tests and assessments. [3]
    • They are designed to test general intelligence, and not character or personality.
    • Modern IQ tests have a standard error of measurement of about 3 points.
  • The distribution of IQs in a population nicely fits a Bell curve.
    • IQ is defined in such a way as to make the population mean exactly 100, and the standard deviation 15.
  • People with high IQs tend to be healthier, wealthier, live longer, and have more successful careers. [4][5][6]
    • IQ is highly predictive of educational aptitude and job performance. [7][8][9][10][11]
    • Longitudinal studies have shown that IQ “is a causal influence on future achievement measures whereas achievement measures do not substantially influence future IQ scores.” [12]

Average adult combined IQs associated with real-life accomplishments by various tests

Accomplishment IQ
MDs, JDs, and PhDs 125
College Graduates 115
1–3 years of college 104
Clerical and sales workers 100–105
High school graduates, skilled workers (e.g., electricians, cabinetmakers) 97
1–3 years of high school (completed 9–11 years of school) 94
Semi-skilled workers (e.g. truck drivers, factory workers) 90–95
Elementary school graduates (completed eighth grade) 90
Elementary school dropouts (completed 0–7 years of school) 80–85
Have 50/50 chance of reaching high school 75

(table from Wiki)

 

Table 25.1 Relationship between intelligence and measures of success (Results from meta-analyses)
Measure of success r k N Source
Academic performance in primary education 0.58 4 1791 Poropat (2009)
Educational attainment 0.56 59 84828 Strenze (2007)
Job performance (supervisory rating) 0.53 425 32124 Hunter and Hunter (1984)
Occupational attainment 0.43 45 72290 Strenze (2007)
Job performance (work sample) 0.38 36 16480 Roth et al. (2005)
Skill acquisition in work training 0.38 17 6713 Colquitt et al. (2000)
Degree attainment speed in graduate school 0.35 5 1700 Kuncel et al. (2004)
Group leadership success (group productivity) 0.33 14 Judge et al. (2004)
Promotions at work 0.28 9 21290 Schmitt et al. (1984)
Interview success (interviewer rating of applicant) 0.27 40 11317 Berry et al. (2007)
Reading performance among problem children 0.26 8 944 Nelson et al. (2003)
Becoming a leader in group 0.25 65 Judge et al. (2004)
Academic performance in secondary education 0.24 17 12606 Poropat (2009)
Academic performance in tertiary education 0.23 26 17588 Poropat (2009)
Income 0.20 31 58758 Strenze (2007)
Having anorexia nervosa 0.20 16 484 Lopez et al. (2010)
Research productivity in graduate school 0.19 4 314 Kuncel et al. (2004)
Participation in group activities 0.18 36 Mann (1959)
Group leadership success (group member rating) 0.17 64 Judge et al. (2004)
Creativity 0.17 447 Kim (2005)
Popularity among group members 0.10 38 Mann (1959)
Happiness 0.05 19 2546 DeNeve & Cooper (1998)
Procrastination (needless delay of action) 0.03 14 2151 Steel (2007)
Changing jobs 0.01 7 6062 Griffeth et al. (2000)
Physical attractiveness -0.04 31 3497 Feingold (1992)
Recidivism (repeated criminal behavior) -0.07 32 21369 Gendreau et al. (1996)
Number of children -0.11 3 Lynn (1996)
Traffic accident involvement -0.12 10 1020 Arthur et al. (1991)
Conformity to persuasion -0.12 7 Rhodes and Wood (1992)
Communication anxiety -0.13 8 2548 Bourhis and Allen (1992)
Having schizophrenia -0.26 18 Woodberry et al. (2008)

(from Gwern)

Nature of g

  • IQ scores are very stable across lifetime. [13]
    • This doesn’t mean that 30-year-old you is no smarter than 10-year-old you. It means that if you test the IQ of a bunch of children, and then later test them as adults, the rank order will remain roughly the same. A smarter-than-average 10 year old becomes a smarter-than-average 30 year old.
  • After your mid-20s, crystallized intelligence plateaus and  fluid intelligence starts declining. Obligatory terrifying graph: (source)

  • High IQ is correlated with more gray matter in the brain, larger frontal lobes, and a thicker cortex. [14][15]
    • There is a constant cascade of information being processed in the entire brain, but intelligence seems related to an efficient use of relatively few structures, where the more gray matter the better.” [16]
  • “Estimates of how much of the total variance in general intelligence can be attributed to genetic influences range from 30 to 80%.” [17]
    • Twin studies show the same results; there are substantial genetic influences on human intelligence. [18]
    • The genetic component of IQ is highly polygenic, and no specific genes have been robustly associated with human intelligence. The best we’ve found so far is a single gene that accounts for 0.1% of the variance in IQ. [17]
  • Many genes have been weakly associated with IQ. “40% of the variation in crystallized-type intelligence and 51% of the variation in fluid-type intelligence between individuals” is accounted for by genetic differences. [19]
    • Scientists can predict your IQ by looking only at your genes (not perfectly, but significantly better than random). [19]
      • This study analyzed 549,692 base pairs and found a R = .11 mean correlation between their predictions and the actual fluid intelligence of over 3500 unrelated adults. [19]

You might be wondering at this point what all the controversy regarding IQ is about. Why are so many people eager to dismiss IQ as a valid measure of intelligence? Well, we now dive straight into the heart of the controversy: intergroup variation in IQ.

It’s worth noting that, as Scott Alexander puts it: society is fixed, while biology is mutable. This fear we have that if biology factors into the underperformance of some groups, then such difference are intrinsically unalterable, makes little sense. We can do things to modify biology just as we can do things to modify society, and in fact the first is often much easier to do and more effective than the easier.

Anyway, prelude aside, we dive into the controversy.

Group differences in IQ

  • Yes, there are racial differences in IQ, both globally and within the United States. This has been studied to death, and is a universal consensus; you won’t find a single paper in a reputable psychology journal denying the numerical differences. [20]
  • Within the United States, there is a long-standing 1 SD (15 to 18 point) IQ difference between African Americans and White Americans. [2]
    • The tests in which these differences are most pronounced are those that most closely correspond to g, like Raven’s Progressive Matrices. [6] This test also is free of culturally-loaded knowledge, and only requires being able to solve visual pattern-recognition puzzles like these ones:

      • Controlling for the way the tests are formulated and administered does not affect this difference. [2]
      • IQ scores predict success equally accurately regardless of race or social class. This provides some evidence that the test is not culturally biased as a predictor. [2] [19]
  • Internationally, the lowest average IQs are found in sub-Saharan Africa and the highest average IQs are found in East Asia. The variations span a range of three standard deviations (45 IQ points). [21]
    • Malawi has an estimated average IQ of 60.
    • Singapore and Hong Kong have estimated IQs around 108.

(image from here)

  • A large survey published in one of the top psychology journals polled over 250 experts on IQ and international intelligence differences. [21]
    • On possible causes of cross-national differences in cognitive ability: “Genes were rated as the most important cause (17%), followed by educational quality (11.44%), health (10.88%), and educational quantity (10.20%).”
    • “Around 90% of experts believed that genes had at least some influence on cross-national differences in cognitive ability.”
  • Men and women have equal average IQs.
    • But: “most IQ tests are constructed so that there are no overall score differences between females and males.” [6]
    • They do this by removing items that show significant sex differences. So, for instance, men have a 1 SD (15 point) advantage on visual-spatial tasks over women. Thus mental rotation tests have been removed, in order to reduce the perception of bias. [22]
    • Males also do better on proportional and mechanical reasoning and mathematics, while females do better on verbal tests. [22]
  • Hormones are thought to play a role in sex differences in cognitive abilities. [23]
    • Females that are exposed to male hormones in utero have higher spatiotemporal reasoning scores than females that are not. [24]
    • The same thing is seen with men that have higher testosterone levels, and older males given testosterone. [25]
  • There is also some evidence of men having a higher IQ variance than women, but this seems to be disputed. If true, it would indicate more men at the very bottom and the very top of the IQ scale (helping to explain sex disparities in high-IQ professions). [26]

IQ Trends

  • In the developed world, average IQ has been increasing by 2 to 3 points per decade since 1930. This is called the Flynn effect.
    • The average IQ in the US in 1932, as measured by a 1997 IQ test, would be around 80. People with IQ 80 and below correspond to the bottom 9% of the 1997 population. [27]
  • Some studies have found that the Flynn effect seems to be waning in the developing world, and beginning in the developing world. [28]
  • A large survey of experts found that most attribute the Flynn effect to “better health and nutrition, more and better education and rising standards of living.” [29]
  • The Flynn effect is not limited to IQ tests, but is also found in memory tests, object naming, and other commonly used neuropsychological tests. [30]
  • Many studies indicate that the black-white IQ gap in the United States is closing. [23]

Can IQ be increased?

  • There are not any known interventions to reliably cause long term increases (although decreasing it is easy).
    • Essentially, you can do a handful of things to ensure that your child’s IQ is not low (give them access to education, provide them good nutrition, prevent iodine deficiency, etc), but you can’t do much beyond these.
  • Educational intervention programs have fairly unanimously failed to show long-term increases in IQ in the developed world. [23]
    • The best prekindergarten programs have a substantial short-term effect on IQ, but this effect fades by late elementary school.

Random curiosities

  • Several large-scale longitudinal studies have found that children with higher IQ are more likely to have used illegal drugs by middle age. This association is stronger for women than men. [31][32]
    • This actually makes some sense, given that IQ is positively correlated with Openness (in the Big Five personality traits breakdown).
  • The average intelligence of Marines has been significantly declining since 1980. [33]
  • “The US military has minimum enlistment standards at about the IQ 85 level. There have been two experiments with lowering this to 80 but in both cases these men could not master soldiering well enough to justify their costs.” (from Wiki)
    • This is fairly terrifying when you consider that 10% of the US population has an IQ of 80 or below; evidently, this enormous segment of humanity has an extremely limited capacity to do useful work for society.
  • Researchers used to think that IQ declined significantly starting around age 20. Subsequently this was found to be mostly a product of the Flynn effect: as average IQ increases, the normed IQ value inflates, so a constant IQ looks like it decreases. (from Wiki)
  • The popular idea that listening to classical music increases IQ has not been borne out by research. (Wiki)
  • There’s evidence that intelligence is part of the explanation for differential health outcomes across socioeconomic class.
    • “…Health workers can diagnose and treat incubating problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, but only when people seek preventive screening and follow treatment regimens. Many do not. In fact, perhaps a third of all prescription medications are taken in a manner that jeopardizes the patient’s health. Non-adherence to prescribed treatment regimens doubles the risk of death among heart patients (Gallagher, Viscoli, & Horwitz, 1993). For better or worse, people are substantially their own primary health care providers.”

      “For instance, one study (Williams et al., 1995) found that, overall, 26% of the outpatients at two urban hospitals were unable to determine from an appointment slip when their next appointment was scheduled, and 42% did not understand directions for taking medicine on an empty stomach. The percentages specifically among outpatients with inadequate literacy were worse: 40% and 65%, respectively. In comparison, the percentages were 5% and 24% among outpatients with adequate literacy. In another study (Williams, Baker, Parker, & Nurss, 1998), many insulin-dependent diabetics did not understand fundamental facts for maintaining daily control of their disease: Among those classified as having inadequate literacy, about half did not know the signs of very low or very high blood sugar, and 60% did not know the corrective actions they needed to take if their blood sugar was too low or too high. Among diabetics, intelligence at time of diagnosis correlates significantly (.36) with diabetes knowledge measured 1 year later (Taylor, Frier, et al., 2003).” [34]
  • IQ differences might be able to account for a significant portion of global income inequality.
    • “… in a conventional Ramsey model, between one-fourth and one-half of income differences across countries can be explained by a single factor: The steady-state effect of large, persistent differences in national average IQ on worker productivity. These differences in cognitive ability – which are well-supported in the psychology literature – are likely to be malleable through better nutrition, better education, and better health care in the world’s poorest countries. A simple calibration exercise in the spirit of Bils and Klenow (AER, 2000) and Castro (Rev. Ec. Dyn., 2005) is conducted. According to the model, a move from the bottom decile of the global IQ distribution to the top decile will cause steady-state living standards to rise by between 75 and 350 percent. I provide evidence that little of IQ-productivity relationship is likely to be due to reverse causality.” [35]
  • Exposure to lead hampers cognitive development and lowers IQ. You can calculate the economic boost the US received as a result of the dramatic reduction in children’s exposure to lead since the 1970s and the resulting increase in IQs.
    • “The base-case estimate of $213 billion in economic benefit for each cohort is based on conservative assumptions about both the effect of IQ on earnings and the effect of lead on IQ.” [36]
    • Yes. $213 billion.
  • In a 113-country analysis, IQ has been found to positively affect all main measures of institutional quality.
    • “The results show that average IQ positively affects all the measures of institutional quality considered in our study, namely government efficiency, regulatory quality, rule of law, political stability and voice and accountability. The positive effect of intelligence is robust to controlling for other determinants of institutional quality.” [37]
  • High IQ people cooperate more in repeated prisoner’s experiments; 5% to 8% more cooperation per 100 point increase in SAT score (7 pt IQ increase). [38][39]
    • The second paper also shows more patience and higher savings rates for higher IQ. [39]
  • Embryo selection is a possible way to enhance the IQ of future generations, and is already technologically feasible.
    • “Biomedical research into human stem cell-derived gametes may enable iterated embryo selection (IES) in vitro, compressing multiple generations of selection into a few years or less.” [40]
      Selection Average IQ gain
      1 in 2 4.2
      1 in 10 11.5
      1 in 100 18.8
      1 in 1000 24.3

Sources

There is a ridiculous amount of research out there on IQ, and you can easily reach any conclusion you want by just finding some studies that agree with you. I’ve tried to stick to relying on large meta-analyses, papers of historical significance, large surveys of experts, and summaries by experts of consensus views.

[1] Warne, R. T., Astle, M. C., & Hill, J. C. (2018). What Do Undergraduates Learn About Human Intelligence? An Analysis of Introductory Psychology Textbooks. Archives of Scientific Psychology, 6(1), 32-50.

[2] Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). Mainstream science on intelligence: An editorial with 52 signatories, history and bibliography. Intelligence, 24(1), 13-23.

[3] Colom, R. (2004). Intelligence Assessment. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, 2(2), 307–314.

[4] Batty, D. G., Deary, I. J,, Gottfredson, L. S. (2007).  Premorbid (early life) IQ and Later Mortality Risk: Systematic ReviewAnnals of Epidemiology, 17(4), 278–288.

[5] Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). Why g Matters: The Complexity of Everyday LifeIntelligence, 24(1), 79-132.

[6] Neisser, U, et al. (1996). Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. American Psychological Association. American Psychologist, 51(2), 77-101.

[7] Deary, I. J., et al. (2007). Intelligence and educational achievementIntelligence, 35(1), 13-21.

[8] Dumfart, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2016). Conscientiousness is the most powerful noncognitive predictor of school achievement in adolescents. Journal of Individual Differences, 37(1), 8-15.

[9] Kuncel, N. R., & Hezlett, S. A. (2010). Fact and Fiction in Cognitive Ability Testing for Admissions and Hiring DecisionsCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, 19(6), 339-345.

[10] Schmidt, F. L., Hunter, J. E. (1998). The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research FindingsPsychological Bulletin, 124(2), 262-274.

[11] Hunter, J. E., & Hunter, R. F. (1984). Validity and utility of alternative predictors of job performancePsychological Bulletin, 96(1), 72-98.

[12] Watkins, M. W., Lei, P., Canivez, G. L. (2007). Psychometric intelligence and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysisIntelligence, 35(1), 59-68.

[13] Deary, I. J., et al. (2000). The stability of individual differences in mental ability from childhood to old age: follow-up of the 1932 Scottish Mental Survey. Intelligence, 28(1), 49–55.

[14] Frangou, S., Chitins, X., Williams, S. C. R. (2004). Mapping IQ and gray matter density in healthy young people.  NeuroImage, 23(3), 800-805.

[16] Narr, K., et al. (2007). Relationships between IQ and Regional Cortical Gray Matter Thickness in Healthy Adults. Cerebral Cortex, 17(9), 2163–2171.

[15] University Of California – Irvine. “Human Intelligence Determined By Volume And Location Of Gray Matter Tissue In Brain.” ScienceDaily, 20 July 2004.

[17] Deary, I. J., Penke, L., Johnson, W. (2010) The neuroscience of human intelligence differencesNature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(3), 201–211.

[18] Deary, I. J., Johnson, W., Houlihan, L. M. (2009). Genetic foundations of human intelligenceHuman Genetics, 126(1), 215-232.

[19] Davies, G., et al. (2011). Genome-wide association studies establish that human intelligence is highly heritable and polygenicMol Psychiatry, 16(10), 996–1005.

[20] Rushton, J. P., Jensen, A. R. (2005). Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive AbilityPsychology, Public Policy, 11(2), 235-294.

[21] Rindermann, H., Becker, D., Coyle, T. R. (2016). Survey of Expert Opinion on Intelligence: Causes of International Differences in Cognitive Ability TestsFrontiers in Psychology, 7.

[22] Ellis, L., et al. (2008). Sex Differences: Summarizing More than a Century of Scientific Research. Psychology Press.

[23] Nisbett, R. E., et al. (2012). Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical DevelopmentsAmerican Psychologist, 67(2), 129.

[24] Resnick, S. M., et al. (1986). Early hormonal influences on cognitive functioning in congenital adrenal hyperplasiaDevelopmental Psychology, 22(2), 191-198.

[25] Janowsky, J. S., Oviatt, S. K., Orwoll, E. S. (1994) Testosterone influences spatial cognition in older men. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108(2), 325-332.

[26] Lynn, R., Kanazawa, S. (2011). A longitudinal study of sex differences in intelligence at ages 7, 11 and 16 yearsPersonality and Individual Differences, 51(3), 321–324.

[27] Neisser, U. (1997). Rising Scores on Intelligence Tests. American Scientist, 85(5), 440-447.

[28] Pietschnig, J., Voracek, M. (2015). One Century of Global IQ Gains: A Formal Meta-Analysis of the Flynn Effect (1909-2013)Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(3), 282-306.

[29] Rindermann, H., Becker, D., Coyle, T. R. (2017). Survey of expert opinion on intelligence: The Flynn effect and the future of intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 242-247.

[30] Trahan, L. H., et al. (2014). The Flynn Effect: A Meta-analysisPsychological Bulletin, 140(5), 1332-1360.

[31] White, J., Gale, C. R., Batty, D. G. (2012). Intelligence quotient in childhood and the risk of illegal drug use in middle-age: the 1958 National Child Development SurveyAnnals of Epidemiology, 22(9), 654-657.

[32] White, J., Batty, D. G. (2011). Intelligence across childhood in relation to illegal drug use in adulthood: 1970 British Cohort Study. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 66(9).

[33] Cancian, M. F., Klein, M. W. (2015). Military Officer Quality in the All-Volunteer ForceNational Bureau of Economic Research, WP 21372.

[34] Gottfredson, L.S. (2004). Intelligence: Is it the epidemiologists’ elusive fundamental cause of social class inequalities in health?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology86(1), 174-199.

[35] Jones, G. (2005). IQ in the Ramsey Model: A Naive Calibration. George Mason University.

[36] Grosse, S. D., et al. (2002). Economic Gains Resulting from the Reduction in Children’s Exposure to Lead in the United StatesEnvironmental Health Perspectives, 110(6), 563-569.

[37] Kalonda-Kanyama, I. & Kodila-Tedika, O. (2012). Quality of Institutions: Does Intelligence Matter?Working Papers Series in Theoretical and Applied Economics 201206, University of Kansas, Department of Economics.

[38] Jones, G. (2008). Are Smarter Groups More Cooperative? Evidence from Prisoner’s Dilemma Experiments, 1959-2003Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 68(3–4), 489-497.

[39] Jones, G. (2011). National IQ and National Productivity: The Hive Mind Across Asia. Asian Development Review, 28(1), 51-71.

[40] Shulman, C. & Bostrom, N. (2014). Embryo Selection for Cognitive Enhancement: Curiosity or Game-changer?. Global Policy 5(1), 85-92.

Cults, tribes, states, and markets

The general problem solved by Civilization is how to get a bunch of people with different goals, each partial to themselves, to live together in peace and build a happy society instead of all just killing each other. It’s easy to forget just how incredibly hard of a problem this is. The lesson of game theory is that even two people whose interests don’t align can end up in shitty suboptimal Nash equilibria where they’re both worse off, by each behaving apparently perfectly rationally. Generalize this to twenty people, or a thousand people, or 300 million people, and you start to get a sense of how surprising it is that civilization exists on the scale that it does at all.

Yes, history tells many thousands of tales about large-scale defecting (civil wars, corruption, oppressive treatment of minority populations, outbreaks of violence and lawlessness, disputes over the line of succession) and the anarchic chaos that results, but it’s easy to imagine it being way, way worse. People are complex things with complex desires, and when you put that many people together, you should expect some serious failures. Hell, even a world of selfless altruists with shared goals would still have a tough time solving coordination problems of this size. Nobody thinks that the average person is better than this, so what gives?

Part of the explanation comes from psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene, who detail the process by which humans evolved a moral sense that involved things like tit-for-tat emotional responses and tribalistic impulses. This baseline level of desire to form cooperative equilibria with friends helps push the balance away from chaos towards civilization, but it can’t be the whole explanation. After all, history does not reveal a constant base-rate of cooperative capacity between different humans, but instead tells a story of increasingly large-scale and complex civilizations. We went from thousands of small tribes scattered across Africa and Asia, to chiefdoms of tens of thousands individuals all working together, to vast empires that were home to millions of humans, and to today’s complex balance of global forces that make up a cooperative web that we are all part of. And we did this in the space of some ten thousand years.

This is not the type of timescale over which we can reasonably expect that evolution drastically reshaped our brains. Our moral instincts (love of kin, loyalty to friends, deference to authority, altruistic tendencies) can help us explain the cooperation we saw in 6000 B.C.E. in a tribe of a few hundred individuals. But they aren’t as helpful when we’re talking about the global network of cooperation, in which lawfulness is ensured by groups of individuals thousands of miles away, in which virtually every product that we rely on in our day-to-day life is the result of a global supply chain that brings together thousands of individuals that have never even seen each other, and in which a large and growing proportion of the world have safe access to hospitals and schools and other fruits of cooperation.

The explanation for this immense growth of humanity’s cooperative capacity is the development of institutions. As time passed, different bands of humans tried out different ways of structuring their social order. Some ways of structuring society worked better and lived on to the next generations of humans, who made further experiments in civilizational engineering. I think there is a lot to be learned by looking at the products of this thousand-year-long selection process for designing stable cooperative structures and seeing what happened to work best. In a previous post I described the TIMN theory of social evolution, which can be thought of as a categorization of the most successful organizational strategies that we’ve invented across throughout history. The following categorization is inspired by this framing, but different in many places.

The State: Cooperation is enforced by a central authority who can punish defectors. This central authority employs vast networks of hierarchically descending authority and systems of bureaucracy to be able to reach out across huge populations and keep individuals from defecting, even if they are nowhere near the actual people in charge. “State” is technically too narrow of a term, as these types of structures are not limited to governments, but can include corporate governance by CEOs, religious organizations, and criminal organizations like the Medellin Cartel. Ronfeldt uses the term Institution for this instead, but that sounds too broad to me.

The Market: Cooperation is not enforced by anybody, but instead arises as a natural result of the self-interested behaviors of individuals that each stand to gain through an exchange of goods. Markets have some really nice properties that a structure like the State doesn’t have, such as natural tendencies for exchange rates to equilibrate towards those that maximize efficiency. They also are fantastically good at dealing with huge amounts of complex information that a single central authority would be unable to parse (for instance, a weather event occurs on one coast of the United States, affecting suppliers of certain products, who then adjust their prices to re-equilibrate, which then results in a cascade of changes in consumer behavior across other markets, which also then react, and eventually the “news” of the weather event has traveled to the other coast, adjusting prices so that the products are allocated efficiently). A beautiful feature of the Market structure is that you can get HUGE amounts of people to cooperate in order to produce incredibly innovative and valuable stuff, without this cooperation being explicitly enforced by threats of punishment for defecting. Of course, Markets also have numerous failings, and the nice properties I discussed only apply for certain types of goods (those that are excludable and rival). When the Market structure extends outside of this realm, you see catastrophic failures of organization, the scale of which pose genuine threats to the continued existence of human civilization.

The Tribe: Cooperation is achieved not through a central authority or through mutually beneficial exchange, but through strong kinship and friendship relations. Tribe-type structures spring up naturally all the time in extended families, groups of friends, or shared living situations. Strong loyalty intuitions and communitarian instincts can serve to functionally punish defectors through social exclusion from their tribe, giving it some immunity to invading defector strategies. But the primary mechanism through which cooperation is enforced is the part of our psychology that keeps us from lying to our friends or stealing from our partners, even when we think we can get away with it. The problem with this structure is that it scales really poorly. Our brains can only handle a few dozen real friendships at a time, and typically these relationships require regular contact to be maintained. Historically, this has meant that tribes can only survive for fairly small groups of people that are geographically close to each other, and this is pretty much the range of their effectiveness.

The Cult: The primary idea of this category is that cooperation does not arise from self-interested exchange or from punishment for defectors, but from shared sacred beliefs or values. These beliefs often shape their holders’ entire world-views and relate to intense feelings of meaning, purpose, reverence, and awe. They can be about political ideology, metaphysics, aesthetics, or anything else that carries with it sufficient value as to penetrate into and reshape a whole worldview. The world’s major religions are the most striking examples of this, having been one of the biggest shapers of human behavior throughout history. Different members of the same religion can pour countless hours into dedicated cooperative work, not because of any sense of kinship with one another, but because of a sense of shared purpose.

The Pope won’t throw you in jail if you stop going to church, and you don’t go to make an exchange of goods with your priest (except in some very metaphorical sense that I don’t find interesting). You go because you believe deeply in the importance of going. There are aspects of Science that remind me of the Cult structure, like the hours of unpaid and anonymous work that senior scientists put into reviewing the papers of their colleagues in the field in order to give guidance to journals, grant-funders, or the researchers themselves on the quality of the material. When I’ve asked why spend so much time on doing this when they are not getting paid or recognized for their work, the responses I’ve gotten make reference to the value of the peer-review process and the joy and importance of advancing the frontier of knowledge. This type of response clearly indicates the sense of Science as a Sacred Value that serves as a driving force in the behavior of many scientists.

A Cult is like a Tribe in many ways, but one that is not limited to small sizes. Cults can grow and become global behemoths, inspiring feelings of camaraderie between total strangers that have nothing in common besides shared worldview. While the term ‘Cult’ is typically derogatory, I don’t mean to use it in this sense here. Cults are incredibly powerful ways to get huge numbers of people to work together, despite there being no obvious reason why they should do so to anybody on the outside of their worldview. And not only do they inspire large-scale cooperative behavior, but they are powerful sources of meaning and purpose in our lives. This seems tremendously valuable and loaded with potential for developing a better future society. Think about the strength of something like Judaism, and how it persevered through thousands of years of repeated extermination attempts, diasporas, and religious factioning, all the while maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity and fervent religious belief. Taking the perspective of an alien visiting the planet, it might be baffling to try to understand why this set of beliefs didn’t die out long ago, and what constituted the glue holding the Jewish people together.

I think that the Cult structure is really undervalued in the circles I hang out in, which tend to focus on the irrationality that is often associated with a Cult. This irrationality seems natural enough; a Cult forms around a deeply held belief or set of beliefs, and strong identification with beliefs leads to dogmatism and denial of evidence. I wonder if you could have a “Cult of Rationality”, in which the “sacred beliefs” include explicit dedication to open-mindedness and non-dogmatic thinking, or if this would be in some sense self-defeating. There’s also the memetic aspect of this, which is that not just any idea is apt to become a sacred belief. It might be that the type of person that is deeply invested in rationality is exactly the type that would typically scoff at the idea of a Cult of Rationality, for instance.

Broad strokes: Tribes play on our loyalty and kinship intuitions. States play on our respect for authority. Markets play on our self-interest. And Cults play on our sense of reverence, awe, and sacredness.

TIMN view of social evolution

(Papers here and here)

In the Neolithic era, societies are thought to have been mostly small groups bonded by kinship relations, with little social stratification. As technological advancement accommodated more complex social structures and larger groups of humans living together, problems of coordination became increasingly difficult. In response, more complex social structures arose, such as Chiefdoms, States and eventually Empires.

These structures solved coordination problems through a top-down command-and-control approach, enforced by strict hierarchical power structures. Historical exemplars of such structures include Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. These societies experienced immense growth, stretching out to dominate vast stretches of territory and millions of humans.

But as they grew, these societies began facing increasingly difficult problems of managing vast amounts of information involving complex exchanges and economic dynamics. Eventually, old mercantilist systems in which the state was in charge of economic transactions gave way to a grand new form of social structure: the market.

Societies that adopted market structures alongside the state became global leaders, dominating technological, social, and economic progress up until the present day. And just as previous forms of society had their distinctive failings, capitalistic societies face problems in the creation of social inequalities without the ability to address them.

Advances in technology that allow a revolutionary capacity for information exchange are resulting in the formation of a new form of social structure to address these problems. This structure is characterized by complicated heterarchical cooperation between massive networks of physically dispersed individuals, all coordinating on the basis of shared ideological aims. It is to them that the future belongs.

This is the view of history offered by political scientist David Ronfeldt, who framed the TIMN theory of social evolution.

If I were to summarize his entire theory in four sentences, I would say:

Societies through history can be explained through the interactions of four major forms of social structure: the Tribe, the Institution, the Market, and the Network. Each form defines a structure of governance and the way that individuals interact with one another, as well as cultural values and beliefs about the way society should be organized.

Each has different strengths and its weaknesses, and the progress of history has been a move towards adopting all four forms in a complicated balance. The future will belong to those societies that realize the potential of the network form and successfully incorporate it into their social structure.

There are a lot of parallels between this and previous things that I’ve read. I’ll go into that in a moment, but first will lay out more detailed definitions of his four primary structures.

The Tribe: Tribes are characterized by tight kinship relationships. Tribal social structures create strong senses of social identity and belonging, and define the culture of successive societies. They are small, egalitarian, and generally lack a strong leader. Their limitations are problems of administration and coordination as they grow, as well as nepotism and intertribal wars. Historical examples abound in the Neolithic era, and in modern times they exist in certain hot spots in Third World countries. In the First World, tribal patterns exist within families, urban gangs, civic clubs, and more abstractly in nationalism, racism and sports team mania.

The Institution: Institutions are characterized by authority figures, strict hierarchies, management structures, and administrative bureaucracies. Their strengths involve administration and solving coordination problems. They are afflicted with problems of corruption and abuse of power, as well as difficulty processing large amounts of information, leading to economic inefficiency. Examples include the great Empires, and they exist today in states, military organizations, religious organizations, and corporations.

The Market: Markets are characterized by competition and voluntary exchanges between self-interested individuals. They are uncentralized and nonhierarchical, and do well at handling enormous amounts of complex information and optimizing economic efficiency in exchanges of private goods. They lead to productive and innovative societies with thriving trade and commerce. Markets struggle to deal with externalities and lead to social inequality. Markets historically took off in the transition from mercantilism to capitalism in Europe, and are exemplified by the economies of the U.S. and the U.K. and more recently Chile, China, and Mexico.

The Network: Networks are characterized by cooperation between many autonomous individuals with no single central authority, where each individual is connected to all others. They are tied together not by blood or kinship relationships, but by ideology and common goals. Their strengths are yet to be seen, though Ronfeldt thinks that they could do well at promoting “group empowerment” and solving social issues. Same with their weaknesses, though he points vaguely in the direction of “information overload” and “deception”. Examples include social networks and transnational networks of NGOs.

Networks are the most poorly specified and speculative of the four forms. This is perhaps to be expected; after all, he thinks they have only begun to come into prominence at the advent of the Information Age.

They’re also the form that he stresses the most, making lots of breathless predictions about networked societies superseding the market-state societies that dominate the status quo. He urges states like the U.S. and the U.K. to become active participants in the ushering in of this great new era if they want to remain global leaders.

This part was less interesting to me. I’m not convinced that the problems of social inequality that he thinks Networks are necessary for cannot be fixed in a Market/State paradigm. All the same, it was nice to see falsifiable predictions from an otherwise highly theoretical work.

What I enjoyed most was his view of history. He sees the four forms as additive. When a society incorporates a new form, it does not discard the old, but builds upon it. Both end up modifying and influencing each other, and the end product is a combined system that incorporates both.

So for instance, the culture of a Tribe bleeds into its later instantiations as a State-run society, and can remain generations after the more visible tribal structures have passed on. And the adoption of free-market economic systems forces a reshaping of the State towards political democracy. He quotes Charles Lindblom:

However poorly the market is harnessed to democratic purposes, only within market-oriented systems does political democracy arise. Not all market-oriented systems are democratic, but every democratic system is also a market-oriented system. Apparently, for reasons not wholly understood, political democracy has been unable to exist except when coupled with the market. An extraordinary proposition, it has so far held without exception.

Ronfeldt explains this as a result of the market form pushing social values towards personal freedom, individuality, representation, and governmental accountability.

***

First connection:

I was reminded of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s categorization of the different basic types of moral intuitions in The Righteous Mind. These are:

  • Care/Harm: Includes feelings like empathy and compassion. These intuitions are most triggered by experiences of vulnerable children, intense suffering and need, and cruelty.
  • Fairness/Cheating: Includes feelings of reciprocity, injustice, and equality. Triggered by others displaying cooperation or selfishness towards us.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: Includes feelings of tribalism, unity and kinship. Triggered by involvement in tight groups
  • Authority/Subversion: Includes feelings of respect for parents, teachers, rulers, and religious leaders, as well as the feelings that this respect is owed. Involved in hierarchical thinking and perceptions of dominance relations.
  • Sanctity/Degradation: Includes feelings of disgust, purity, cleanliness, dirtiness, sacredness, and corruption.
  • Liberty/Oppression: Includes feelings of individualism, freedom, and resentment towards being dominated or oppressed.

Different political ideologies line up very well with different “moral foundations profiles”. Liberals tend to care primarily about the first two categories, Libertarians the last, and Conservatives a roughly equal mix of all six. You can take a questionnaire to see your personal moral profile here.

These categories look like they map really nicely onto the TIMN model as organizing principles for the different forms. Here’s my speculation on how the different social forms engage and capitalize on the different types of intuitions:

Tribes: Loyalty/Betrayal

Institutions: Authority/Subversion

Markets: Liberty/Oppression

Networks: Care/Harm?

The natural next question is what types of social forms would have as organizing principles the values of Fairness/Cheating or Sanctity/Degradation.

Second connection:

Sociologist Robert Nisbet attempted to categorize the different basic patterns of social interactions. He gave five categories: cooperation, conflict, exchange, coercion and conformity. For some reason this categorization seemed very deep to me when I first heard it, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Cooperation involves coordination between individuals that have a shared goal, while exchange involves coordination between individuals that are each motivated by their own self-interest.

Conflict occurs when individuals work against each other, competing for a larger share of rewards, for instance. Coercion is the forced cooperation between individuals with different goals. And conformity involves behavior that matches group expectations.

These categories nicely match the types of social interactions that characterize the different social forms in the TIMN model.

Tribes are a social form that are dominated by conformity interactions. Identity is tightly bound up with tribal culture, lineage, and adherence to social norms involving mutual defense and aid and who can have kids with whom.

The structure of Institutions is quite clearly analogous to coercion, and Markets to exchange and conflict. And by Ronfeldt’s description, Networks seem to be analogous to cooperative interactions.

Third connection:

Scott Alexander makes the point that democracies have several unique features that set them apart from previous forms of government.

These features all arise from the fact that democracies answer questions of leadership succession by handing them to the people. This is a big deal, for two main reasons:

First, democracies put an upper bound on how terrible a leader can be.

Why? The basic justification is that while the people don’t get to select the absolute best choice for leadership, they do get to select against the worst choices.

(FPTP is terrible enough that I actually don’t know if this is in general true. But this is in contrast to monarchical forms of government, which involve no feedback from the population, so the point stands.)

When the king of a hereditary monarchy dies and the throne passes to his oldest son, there is no formally recognized way to guard against the possibility that the kid is literally the next Hitler. At best, the population can just try to throw him out when they’ve had enough and let whoever wins out in the resulting scramble for power take over.

Second, democracy provides a great Schelling point for leadership succession.

(A Schelling point is a decision that would be arbitrary except that that is made on the basis of an expectation that everybody else will make the same decision. So if you’re supposed to meet a stranger in NYC, and you don’t know where, you’ll choose to go to Grand Central Terminal, and so will they. Not because of any psychic communication between the two of you, nor any sort of official designation of Grand Central Terminal as the One True Stranger Meeting Spot, but because you each expect the other to be there. Thus Grand Central Terminal is a geographical Schelling point for NYC.)

The Schelling point for leadership succession in a hereditary monarchy is royal blood. Which is to say that when the leader dies, everybody looks for the person (usually the man) with the most royal blood, and elects them.

But who determines if somebody’s blood is truly royal? What do you do if some other family decides that they have the truly royal blood? What if two people have equally royal blood?

The Schelling point for leadership succession in a theocratic monarchy like Ancient Egypt is the Official Word Of God.

Who determines which individual God actually wants in charge? What if two people both claim that God chose them to rule?

The problem is that these legitimacy claims are founded on fictions. There is no quality of royal-ness to blood, and there is no God to choose rulers.  In a democracy, the Schelling point for democracy is a real thing that is easily verifiable: the popular vote.

Everybody agrees who the correct leader is, because everybody can just look at the election results. And if somebody disagrees on who the correct leader is, then they have a clear action to take: mobilize voters to change their mind by the next election.

Thus democracy plays the dual role of ending succession squabbles and providing a natural pressure valve for those dissatisfied with the current leader.

These differences in structure seem really significant. I think that I would want to break apart Ronfeldt’s Institution category and replace it with two social forms: the Hierarchy and the Democracy.

A Hierarchy would be a social structure in which there is a strict top-down system of authority, and where the population at large does not have a formal role in determining who makes it at the top.

A Democracy also has a top-down system of power, but now also has a formal mechanism for feedback from the population to the top levels of power (e.g. an election). (I’d like a word for this that does not have as political a connotation, but failed to think of any)

***

The TIMN framework naturally leads to a story of the gradual progress of humans in our joint project of perfecting civilization. At each stage in history, new social structures arise to fix the failings of the old, and in this way forward-progress is made.

Overall, I think that the framework offers a potentially useful way of assessing different political and economic systems, by looking at the ways in which they utilize the strengths of these four structures and how they fall victim to the weaknesses.