Friday, April 26, 2013

The cognitive ability of US elites

Jonathan Wai sends me his latest paper, which reveals (click figure below) that ~ 40% or more of US Fortune 500 CEOs, billionaires, federal judges and Senators attended elite undergraduate or graduate institutions whose median standardized test scores are above (roughly) 99th percentile for the overall US population (i.e., SAT M+CR > 1400). Over 10% of individuals in these categories attended Harvard. (In the table: elite school = top 1% undergrad or MBA/JD from program with top 1% scores; grad school = other graduate education; college = college degree but from non-elite program, and no graduate school.)

To put it another way, top 1% ability individuals could be up to ~ 50x overrepresented among the elite groups listed above -- i.e., they are only 1% of the population (by definition), but could be ~ 50% of the super-elite. See also If you're so smart, why aren't you rich? and posts on elite universities and human capital mongering (top 30 elite universities enroll over half of top 1% ability students in the US).

Investigating America's elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differences
Intelligence 41 (2013) 203–211
Jonathan Wai
Duke University, Talent Identification Program

Are the American elite drawn from the cognitive elite? To address this, five groups of America's elite (total N = 2254) were examined: Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, billionaires, Senators, and members of the House of Representatives. Within each of these groups, nearly all had attended college with the majority having attended either a highly selective undergraduate institution or graduate school of some kind. High average test scores required for admission to these institutions indicated those who rise to or are selected for these positions are highly filtered for ability. Ability and education level differences were found across various sectors in which the billionaires earned their wealth (e.g., technology vs. fashion and retail); even within billionaires and CEOs wealth was found to be connected to ability and education. Within the Senate and House, Democrats had a higher level of ability and education than Republicans. Females were underrepresented among all groups, but to a lesser degree among federal judges and Democrats and to a larger degree among Republicans and CEOs. America's elite are largely drawn from the intellectually gifted, with many in the top 1% of ability.
See Finding the next Einstein (Psychology Today) for a Q&A I did with Jon a couple of years ago.


pnard said...

I've never seen any data on it, but I've heard it repeated that males have a higher variance on psych traits than females - if true it would mean the m:f ratio among the elites would never equalize?

HughLygon said...


But by the same criterion the US and Canadian elite is less elite than that of ANY other country, even that of developing countries like Brazil. The reason is uni admissions are objective and transparent and depend solely on standardized tests in these countries.

I'm reminded of Bobby Fischer's e-mail, "usisshit@yahoo".

BobSykes said...

Then why is this country FUBAR?

LondonYoung said...

U.S. seems to be doing OK:

tractal said...

Our meritocracy is really pretty good all things considered. Wouldn't even make the top 10 problems with America. Structurally poor allocation of human capital into law and finance is a much bigger drain than the inefficiencies in college admissions. In fact, I can imagine a tongue in cheek argument along the lines that inefficiency in undergrad admissions does good... when it prevents a high IQ kid from getting into investment banking.

David Coughlin said...

Are you asserting that Brazil, China, and Germany, through their social organization are able to staff their 'elite' society positions with better than 50% from the top 1%?

Kratoklastes said...

Oh please - we all know that the Ivy League has 'legacy' entry for scions of the tax-eating establishment (as evidenced by Dubya), and that it is absolutely possible to gain entry WITHOUT meeting the GPA criterion... opening the door to nepotism and other forms of corruption.

If these individuals were so 'elite' they would have far fewer qualms about releasing their educational records, no? And yet you jsut TRY to get hold of the academic record of any politician - best of luck!

{FWIW - anybody who wants to see my undergrad and Masters' record is more than welcome. It will blow you the phuq away, and the Department I enrolled in was ranked 4th in the globe (based on research output, measured by standardised page count) - the faculty overall was ranked about 15th globally. Only one student in its history has gotten Firsts for every Masters' subject (no prizes for guessing who).}

Want a FAR better predictor of the driver of these individuals' "success"? Measure the distance between a vat of government (i.e., TAX) money, and their pockets. Billionaires included - show me one who has not taken advantage of a government sanctioned monopoly or oligopoly (including IP and patent protection).

Fed Judges (judges overall, actually) are tax-fed robed charlatans who decide at age 50 that they can't retire on what they've made as an advocate. So they decide to become the centrepiece in a quasi-ecclisiastical mediaeval set-piece that is specifically designed to bewilder the average non-lawyer (and more than half of average lawyers). A half-decent advocate makes five or six times a judge's salary - most newly minted barristers of my acquaintance have made a judges' salary in the six months since they joined the Bar. Autant dire que "The Bench is a welfare system for failed advocates".

The current crop of 'high end' welfare queens (politicians and judges), by and large, attended these institutions when standards and competition for places were both significantly lower. And most of the best-known entreprenequrs dropped OUT of the Ivy.

Lastly, anybody who is too caught up in the doings of a soi-disant 'elite' probably need to have a good look at themselves and try to find a way to get satisfaction from achievement itself, not by the association with a group of tax-feeding sociopathic parasites.

Iamexpert said...

you're assuming smart people become elite because they attend elite universities. It could be that universities become elite by accepting smart future elites.

Iamexpert said...

Ivy league schools select for the same three traits that the real world success selects for (high IQ, high drive, high socio-economic background) so it's not surprising to find a very high correlation between academic credentials and real world success. But I wouldn't assume the ivy league elites are smarter than elites with inferior schooling. The smartest elites might be those who figured out how to achieve eliteness despite not having the socioeconomic background that the ivy league selects from.

LondonYoung said...

It does strikes me as strange that the media still gives candidates a complete pass on their grades, SAT's, etc ... Obama was said to have the lowest LSAT score of anyone in his class at Harvard, but how do we know? And if we knew, would we care?

LondonYoung said...

Sorry, no web link :-( ... I was officed on the east side of the North Yard getting my degree while Obama was over on the west side getting his, and at that time admissions were a topic even around the "lesser" North Yard (as I suppose they are now) and his name specifically came up in convo around the place as an example of "unfair" admissions (he made a name for himself gaving several eloquent speeches about how the so-called lefty enlightened faculty of the law school still had almost zilch minority representation, despite the usual ivy quota among the students)... further, it was said that the highest LSAT among the african-american students was lower that that of the lower european-american. It is little faith I put in campus gossip, but I would sure love to know what Obama LSAT score was and see if it was all true!

Iamexpert said...

Very interesting. What do you make of this source?

According to Lockwood, LSAC data reveal that during the 1987-88
academic year, ten African-American students from Columbia University
applied to law school. Only two earned LSAT scores above the 63rd
percentile, and those each had scores in the 94-98th percentile--i.e.
scores between 42 and 45 on the 48-point scale then in use (166 to 171
on today’s 180-point scale). The other students earned scores that would
have been extremely unlikely to qualify for admission, even considering
factors such as affirmative action.

Other demographic data from LSAC--including the fact that there were
only two 27-year-old African-American students five years out of college
that year who achieved scores in that range--further suggest that
Obama’s LSAT scores were among the two from Columbia in the 94-98th

Therefore it is likely, Lockwood concludes, that Obama was admitted to

with LSAT scores near the median of his class (Lockwood suggests
a score of 43).

to Harvard with LSAT scores near the median of his class (Lockwood
suggests a score of 43).

HughLygon said...

Both are the case. But today the former is much more true than in times past. Astor, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller never went to college. My grear great grandfather J J Brown never went to college. The ethnic bottom line accordong to Unz is, despite their constant bitching about discrimination against them, Jews have taken the commanding heights in the US and pulled up the drawbridges. How they've done this without conspiring is like the process of succession in the USSR, a mystery rapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

HughLygon said...

Absolutely yes, from their top 1%.

HughLygon said...


Iamexpert said...

Most elites would have still become elite had they never attended the Ivy League. It's the traits the got them accepted by the Ivy League that made them successful, not the Ivy League degree itself. And the reason elites never went to college in our great grandfather's day is because intelligence, like height, was impaired in those days so not even elites were generally smart enough for college (see the flynn effect).

HughLygon said...

And what % of US citizens is the "elite"? What fraction of 1%?

HughLygon said...


David Coughlin said...

You'll have to pardon me for asking you to quantify this: "BUT when human development is less as in Brazil and China the top 1% in
test scores and the top 1% in ability at conception overlap less." It does not match with my experience.

Re: "The US has the lowest social mobility of any developed country." One might say that our federalism is etched into our cultural bones. The drive to climb is "I am going to be X, but moreso!" Most people I know define themselves in the negative, "I am going to be Not Y!" That is not a culture that goes, it drifts. We're talking about such small numbers here, especially in the face of long replenishment times [people stay in power jobs, and live a long time], that I don't know how you can conclude that social mobility of the affected groups is anything but noise.

I don't think much of undergraduate curricula, at elite universities or otherwise, so I am indifferent to what they might effect.

Anonymous said...

Steve, could you please provide some thoughts you may have on motivation and its relationship to intelligence and achievement?

tractal said...

Point 1 is reasonable but hyperbolic. Point 2 is stupid.

Iamexpert said...

Why can't the top half of the bell curve be 1 SD smarter than in 1910? Height has increased by more than 1 SD since 1910 in the top half of distribution. Why not intelligence?

dwbudd said...

Of course it's non-sense to say that it's impossible that the top half of the bell curve could be 1 SD smarter than 1910. It strikes me as highly unlikely. But impossible?

The "argument" that is put forth above (i.e., that it is "obviously wrong") reminds me of the sort of proofs I would get back in my grad school days grading papers. In mathematics, whenever you come across a statement that "it follows that..." you just know that serious hand-waving is about to occur.

I suspect that tractal is channelling some of my undergrads with his proof...

tractal said...

Obviously wrong is appropriate here. The Flynn effect may not even represent any real gains in G, and what gains might be there are concentrated in the bottom half of the bell curve. Even if you embrace the extreme idea that the population as whole has gained 20 IQ points you still wouldn't have much evidence of that happening in the top half relevant for college performance.

On the other hand far more people are actually attending college. But at the same time we are seeing standards drop in due proportion. The SAT was renormed around 1996 in direct response to DECLINING average scores of test takers. The period between 1980-1996 saw a dramatic increase in college attendance accompanied by a significant reduction in average entering freshman credentials. These changes just happened to coincide with expansions of federal student loan programs and matching rhetoric.

We have a good, reasonable explanation for most of the increase in college attendance. Flynn effect might be a small part of it, but I even doubt that. Its not like colleges were sitting idle in the 30s with no one smart enough to attend them. The GI bill and other changes Obviously, heh, are doing most of the work here.

Good explanation>explanation which has actually been falsified (small flynn gains in top half). But you don't even need data to know that +1SD change since 1920 is crazy. If anything that dramatic was going on someone would've noticed before flynn.

Iamexpert said...

It's a myth that the Flynn effect affects only non-brilliant people; it has uniformly lifted virtually the whole bell curve by about 20 points and occam's razor says it's done so for the same reason other biological traits like height and brain size have increased by over 1 SD: better nutrition. Twin studies show nutrition mostly benefits those abilities on which the Flynn effect is greatest and least affects SAT type abilities. The preponderance of evidence suggests the flynn effect is unrelated to g but the studies are poor and g is a genetic phenomena and the Flynn effect seems nutritional. We may not notice how smart society has become but future historians will look back at today as an science/technology Renaissance. Just the fact that I'm talking to you from my iPad...

LondonYoung said...

From this, it looks to me like Obama's LSAT's were within the range of what white students were scoring and that campus rumors were false. Further it looks like at least two Columbia students had LSAT's in this range and extrapolating from that - and assuming a lot of the high scoring african-american went to Harvard (safe bet?) he wasn't the only one - by far.

As only a tiny side note I will add that, IMHO, it does no favors to the black students that average scores for admitted blacks are so much lower than those of whites (let alone Asians). It taints the accomplishments of the Obama's and puts life-blood into nasty rumors. We can't just ignore Bayes rule, and the opacity around admissions doesn't help. But also, let me say this: Obama\s track record seems to have been ever greater accomplishment as he matured. This would be consistent with a theme on this blog - native ability asserts itself as age increases - but also with the hypothesis that blacks have a harder time establishing themselves due to racism and must climb a steep hill. Do our current affirmative-action policies help or hurt as of 2013?

Even tinier side note - what does it say that we so readily match up Obama with the highest scoring LSAT students from Columbia rather than middle of the pack?

tractal said...

"As only a tiny side note I will add that, IMHO, it does no favors to the black students that average scores for admitted blacks are so much lower than those of whites"

I really think the black students might disagree with you. The "asterisk" argument has some power, but at the same time it is often used to avoid the really uncomfortable parts of the debate. It would be awfully convenient for all if the best thing for everyone was to eliminate affirmative action, but in reality under-represented minorities benefit tremendously from these policies. Typically, AA can push a candidate into entirely different tiers of competitiveness and prestige. In law school admissions, for instance, being the right kind of minority seems to be worth nearly a standard deviation on the LSAT.

That's a huge tangible benefit to the recipients and I imagine it trumps nebulous concerns about tainted accomplishments.

Iamexpert said...

The campus gossipers you overheard were probably overstating their case. I seriously doubt the lowest white score was higher than the highest black score, because over a dozen blacks per year score well within the vast range of white Harvard law students, and surely a school as prestigious as Harvard law can attract at least one of them. Here's some relevant data:

But it's hard to say whether Obama was one of the these outstanding black applicants. Obama got accepted into Columbia as a transfer student which suggests he might not have scored high enough on the SAT to get in the normal way, and since he was apparently not a national merit scholar at a high school known for producing them, I'm inclined to doubt he was one of the top black applicants from Columbia especially since some claims he may have had powerful connections helping him get into Harvard:

Also Obama himself admitted he benefited from affirmative action in academia:

He may have also benefited from the fact that his father went to Harvard (legacy) and the fact that he may have claimed to be a semi-foreign student. You don't get to be president of the U.S. without knowing how to work the system.

HughLygon said...

Racism isn't blacks' biggest problem or the biggest problem of the Afrikaner or the untouchables or Koreans of Japan. Their biggest problem is that they form a distinct cultural group. I am originally from PDX, but living farther east it was really brought home when I heard a few whites talking (and acting) like blacks. These were whites racially but culturally they were black. The very idea that "racism" is the cause of black failures can only be entertained by the autistic. like you LY.

HughLygon said...

Yes. I scored 790 on the practice test and 770 on the test, but I never even appiled to B-school because I knew I couldn't get into one worth attending. The US is shit. It is as simple as that.

HughLygon said...

Just listening to Nixon. It's obvious he's the smartest prez since recorded sound. As Milton Friedman said, "In terms of pure IQ, Nixon is the smartest person I've ever met." Too bad for Nixon and many like him, they don't realize that the US more than any other developed country, does not "prefer" such people, in the active since of "prefer".

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