Stupidity as a Resource

jan-ketil-arnulf-council-on-business-and-societyWhy does intelligence vary? And who is it really important for?

By Prof. Jan Ketil Arnulf, Associate Dean of the BI-Fudan MBA program and Professor at BI Norwegian Business School

We live in a society fixated with intelligence, and we feel guilty about it. One example: I was going to call this article “Why there are stupid people.” The title was meant jokingly, but it struck me that many would be upset by this arrogant statement and dislike me to a degree that would make them blind to the fact that my point was the opposite: I want to have some fun with the importance of intelligence.

Hey – let’s guess using predictability

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I guess it’s all about logic

Let me first establish one thing: I am talking about “intelligence” as measured by IQ tests. The measurements are far more robust than our ability to explain what it is. The robustness of the measurements is one of the reasons why we cannot escape the term. Intelligence, as measured by tests, makes it possible to predict school performance, training results and success in the workplace.

There are of course other things that play a role. However, intelligence is the single strongest predictor of future performance – in all school subjects and careers, from geography to welding to chefs and engineers. In recruiting, it is therefore said that if you only get to know one thing about your candidates then check their intelligence, as this gives the best basis for guessing.

For this to be possible, intelligence has to vary more than most other characteristics. This variety is a little strange. Important biological properties tend to gather around an optimum value. Body temperatures are basically the same for all and changes reflect significant deviations, e.g. illness. The genetic pigmentation of the skin changes rapidly over generations and adapts to the intensity of the sunlight where you live. People mostly have two legs. So why do people have different intelligence to a degree that it noticeably affects their lives?

As we all know, of course the world is square

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Hmm, this seems pretty square to me

The only one I know of who has seriously occupied themselves with this question is the U.S. organizational researcher James G. March. In an amusing article from 1991, he simulated the effect of varying intelligence on groups of people. The unexpected answer was that when intelligence varies, it helps groups of people to learn faster!

Here is a thought experiment to understand how this is possible: Imagine a group of people who live in a hexagonal world, but they do not know it yet – the world must be discovered first. They walk around alone and in groups and find the edges. Some of them find the same edges again; others do not know for sure what edges they have found. To determine this, they need to talk. Eventually they agreed on four of the edges, and thus they assumed that the world was square. Here stupidity is a resource, because those who do not quite understand what the others are talking about are not as easily captured by their agreement. He would rather bang his head against both the fifth and the sixth edges for a while longer. Eventually, the others could notice this and add at least one edge to their worldview.

And I thought I knew everything…

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The Socratic safety net: “I know that I know nothing”

In reality, the world obviously has an astronomical amount of “edges” or phenomena to discover. March put great numbers into his simulation and found that the more complex the world is, the more the group stands to gain from not everyone learning as quickly. The risk here is an ugly phenomenon called “premature convergence,” meaning that we agree on how the world is at a too early stage.

No matter how intelligent we are, none of us is in fact smart enough to understand everything. In addition, we have limited experiences. However, the brain does not care about that – most of us have a feeling of understanding much of everyday life, yet we are wrong much more often than we realize. What James March found was that varying intelligence in groups of people protects us from collective absolute certainty.

Do your bit for the common good – be slightly silly

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This beats playing with a square ball – I see a future for the Euro 2016

For the individual, this is still no consolation. Whoever is wrong will usually just knock his head against a wall that has already been discovered. Varying intelligence was a strength for groups of people in nature. Today, you can get the best of both worlds in a simpler way: Organizations can get the same effect by having a small stream of new recruits. If these new employees are also smart, you get the best of both worlds.

However, the moral of the story is: If you feel a little silly today, remember that it is at the service of the community! In addition, to those who take pride in their IQ: Life cannot be known. It can only be lived.

Useful LINKS

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an ongoing international dialogue between six of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, students and journalists from around the world. #CouncilonBusinessandSociety

 

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