The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Dangers of Intelligence without Creativity or Judgment

Larry Summers, 2013

Larry Summers, 2013

A friend once said to me “once you’re at a certain level of intelligence, most people you meet are either about as smart as you, or stupider.”

I’m at that level of intelligence, I suspect many of my readers are as well. If I go into a 10,000 person organization which doesn’t select primarily for intelligence, I expect to either be the smartest person in the room, or as smart as the smartest person in the room. In an org that does select for intelligence, I still expect to be able to keep up, and to be smarter than most, even if they know more about the subject than I do. (Plus, lots of very high IQ people have terrible intellectual judgment).

Divide intelligence into three parts, (yes, you can divide other ways):

1) processing power and pattern recognition (measured pretty well by IQ)

2) Creativity

3) Judgment

A lot of people only have the first, they are very smart ordinary people, they will get to the same solution a modestly bright person would, just a heck of a lot faster. The folks who put up their hands first in class, whose self-worth is based around .

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High IQ people without 2 or 3 and preferably both, are extraordinarily dangerous if the problem isn’t straightforward. They are the brilliant people who can completely fuck things up. Think Larry Summers — he really is VERY high IQ, I know people who know him. Brad DeLong has very little of #3 either, though he’s very very smart. (He’s very good when his emotions aren’t involved, his historical economic work is excellent). is much more common than #2 and #3.

It isn’t primarily intelligence based, but empathy also has a multiplicative effect in certain circumstances.

Around about 4 standard deviations IQ starts to go really off tracks without #3, because at that IQ level people can make connections between almost anything, the pattern recognition is in overdrive.

To use a metaphor, think of processing power and pattern recognition as the engine of a motorcycle.  Think of creativity and judgment as the rider.  In a straightaway, powering down the highway, no other vehicles on the road, what matters it the engine.  As long as the rider can stay on the bike, the guy with the highest IQ will win any race.

But the more difficult the road conditions, or when you go off road, the more the rider matters.  The guy with the big motor, faced with erratic drivers and lousy weather is likely to get himself, and possibly others, killed.  The good rider will make it thru.

Learning how to think is, in many ways, more important than raw processing power.  The raw processing power will hold you back (to an extent, there are accounts of people raising their IQ by over a standard deviation thru concentrated intellectual effort), but too much power and too little judgment will get you killed, and too much processing power and no creativity will just get you where everyone else would have gone, but faster. Better hope that’s the best place to go.

(Adapted from a comment from 2013.)


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  1. X

    I think you have nailed it. And somehow this whole issue, and that motorcycle analogy, are both horrifying, and hilarious. (X)

  2. mm

    “Perspective is worth 80 IQ point” – Alan Kay

    If you can’t change perspective, the angle you’re looking at a problem from, some problems become unsolvable.

    Which is why I visit this blog, to learn another perspective or ten.

  3. mike

    did you copyright the motorcycle thing? because, if not . . . .

  4. Ian,

    I’m a little curious as to your support for IQ. I thought it was widely accepted that IQ has too many confounds to be more than an extremely coarse measure.

  5. But I do fervently agree about good judgement. And also with mm’s point about perspective — I would add “moral imagination” to your list, the ability to put yourself in the shoes of those you disagree with.

  6. excellent post, minus quibbles about IQ. it’s a general test, yes, but there are several indicators which do not fall under it. it’s not meaningless, but only having enough IQ gives you the perspective.

    ( having just taken a series of IQ tests to measure what I have lost in that department. sometimes I can see the forest though I have lost some trees.0

  7. Ian Welsh

    IQ measures some things quite well. It doesn’t measure everything, but it’s a good enough crude measure for the purposes of an article like this. It’s true that it, too much, measures cultural fluency and standard english, mind you, but such can be roughly corrected for.

  8. steeleweed

    Most (not all) of the creative people I’ve known have been very intelligent but often narrowly so – almost like Aspergers. Polymaths are rare (which is one reason I treasure Sterling).

    Intelligence recognizes & understands facts, usually narrowly. Creativity conceives possible scenarios based on those facts, ideally widely-scoped. You could say that judgment selects from those possibilities, but such selection is based on values, from whatever source those values are derived. In fact, my view is that judgment is not so much a trait as it is a result of expressing one’s values via the possibilities.

  9. EGrise

    Dovetails a bit with the recent Andrew Bacevich article about intellectuals (professional smart people) serving the state: How to Create a National Insecurity State

  10. guest

    I don’t really see how creativity and judgement are parts of intelligence, per se. Intelligence may not be put to good use without creativity, and may be put to bad use without good judgement. There may be commonalities and connections between/among them, but I think that statement needs a lot more development before you can just say those two qualities are parts of intelligence.
    I would argue that awareness, especially self awareness, and awareness of the limitations of one’s own knowledge and that of others’ is what differentiates those with narrow fields of intelligence from those with broader ones. Coupled with “intuitions” which is just awareness also, awareness of less obvious data and nonverbal cues as well as maybe nonphysical or subconscious processes. Empathy is also a kind of awareness.
    Lack of such awareness(es) is what lets the ambitious and aggressive go-getters rise to the top, despite only having IQs in the top 10 or 20 or 50 percent of the population. The same lack of awareness that leads them to think they deservedly won the meritocracy game later on, even while they help drive the world over a cliff with their “gifts”.
    I’m one of those people who scored in the top 1000th or 10,000th on a lot of those tests in school. And I was probably the B+/A- student that teachers and the lower scoring, crybaby honor students were referring to when they would disparage the results of those standardized tests (you know those kids who thought they were the smartest in the school who only got SATs around 1200, which was proof to them and their favorite teachers that the fault lay in the test, not in the tested).
    Actually, they mostly thought I was kind of stupid, although I never studied for math or science and got A’s, and I was just too lazy too kiss enough ass to get A’s in the more subjective classes, like English or history.
    Anyway, those tests mostly measured things that supposedly those honor roll students had mastered better than anyone else in the school just a year or two earlier. There is nothing on the SATs and similar tests (except a few vocabulary words) that every kid shouldn’t be able to answer by the end of 10th grade. Just some algebra, some geometry, and the verbal part is just testing your logic and reading comprehension of short articles you have just read, and that you could still reread if you didn’t catch the answer on the first go-round. As such, my scores were never something I was especially proud of, but I always have a laugh the people who think they are so smart but can’t understand why they couldn’t do better on those tests (It’s because you aren’t nearly as smart as you think you are, chiefs. It’s not because you have some special intelligence that is just unmeasurable with a standardized test).
    It was never my experience that those of us with the best scores were the most successful by society’s standards (which the sour grapes lower score crowd always takes as proof of the uselessness of the tests). Some like me just were just smart and perceptive, but not exactly born with a burning vocation to do or achieve anything in particular, and we weren’t that motivated to do what had to be done to be an Obama or Clinton or Dimon, or just a run of the mill shitbag lawyer or stockbroker. Others who were brilliant (and maybe creative) did brilliant things, but maybe they didn’t have the abilities or appetite to do the things necessary to make themselves the ones who profited most from their brilliance.
    There seems to be a very common belief in society that if we just had the smartest people in charge, everything would take care of itself. But in my lifetime, I, and many others smarter than me, have recognized lots of bad things coming, as well as lots of opportunities. But if you are too stupid to recognize those things for yourself, you are most likely too stupid to recognize those who are smarter than you, or to listen when they point those dangers or opportunities out to you. And so the stupid people put the “successful” charlatans and selfish, short sighted psychos in charge because they can’t or won’t try to distinguish good ideas from bad ones on their merits, so they want to see your ideological or financial credentials before they will listen to what you say or show them.
    Anyway, talking about intelligence is kind of wankerific. I can’t tell you how many people I knew growing up who would take me aside and tell me I was just about the smartest guy they ever met (i.e. the 2nd smartest guy in the world, a somewhat distant 2nd to the persons who would tell me that). Whatever it is, it is not the be-all or end-all of human traits. Not even in the top 5 qualities.

  11. guest

    PS. I think imagination is probably the link between intelligence and creativity. Being able to imagine all the ways you or someone else might be wrong, or to imagine all the different interpretations of one set of data, would give one better awareness of their limitations or those of others. Or conversely of potentialities. Being able to imagine another person’s reactions and emotions would lead to the kind of awareness called empathy. etc.
    Still not sure about judgement. That just seems like a by product of experience + awareness (or at least experience that isn’t wasted on the foolish and unaware)

  12. Willy

    In Minima Moralia, Adorno IIRC states “Intelligence is a moral category”.

  13. Zozimus

    This piece reminds me of the passage from the Analects, Confucius:

    “There is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to a foolish simplicity. There is the love of knowing without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to dissipation of mind. There is the love of being sincere without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to an injurious disregard of consequences. There is the love of straightforwardness without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to rudeness. There is the love of boldness without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to insubordination. There is the love of firmness without the love of learning;– the beclouding here leads to extravagant conduct.”

  14. alyosha

    #2 – creativity – is associated with perception. It needs to be wide open.

    #3 – judgment – is discernment, the ability to sort through the perceptual field or the results of processing a situation, the ability to assign a hierarchy

    I’m in a situation not unlike Stirling’s, where my raw IQ isn’t what it used to be. No longer the fastest or sharpest mind in the room. But what I do have, that I lacked when I was younger, is clarity.

    Youth is a time of great potential along with confusion. It can take decades to sort through all the social and personal conditioning to get to the point where you can clearly separate the nonsense from the truth. I suppose this is wisdom, and it definitely comes with age, if you’re willing to do the work.

  15. Flaser

    Initially I wanted to type that Judgment also involves the ability to foresee the *consequences* of whatever is at hand… but then I realized that for that to be effective you also need creativity to be able to imagine all the new patterns that could emerge.

    Maybe an aggregate product (of the three skills discussed here), Foresight could be a measuring stick for this skill?

  16. @Alyosha ” if you’re willing to do the work.”
    I always refer back to Jung. He theorized that when we are young, say up to our Thirties, we should work on our strengths, our preferences. Confident in ourselves, we then should try to work on things we don’t prefer by getting into other people’s shoes. Yin and Yang. He called this process “individuation” and I called it “maturity”. As you say, if you do this work you gain wisdom. If you don’t do the work and remain forever a teenager, like say a John McCain or most politicians, you are not wise but just a wise cracker.

  17. @Zozimos
    Again with Jung. Confucianism with its emphasis on honoring the rules of conduct and manners of a culture is opposite of Taoism with its emphasis on the natural way and the “live and let live” approach. One is concerned more with public life and the other more concerned with private life. So the two can exist together. What makes me perk up is being able to see opposites. When I studied theater one of my favorites was Bertolt Brecht who liked to think in terms of contradictions in his play writing and in his teaching of acting. Being able to see the contradiction in the sentence, “Water is life” (Water can drown you) would lead to spontaneity in acting and to opening people’s minds in play going.

  18. Medici1

    Re Summers et al:

    They come across a g-whiz kids propounding their own view while preventing or shouting down any broader dialogue. That has been part of the problem with the economic and policy direction over the past few decades, where ideas are over-HYPed to the detriment of 300MM+ Americans.
    How does the average citizen get #3 acknowledged and discussed?

  19. micky9finger

    Or as they say all the time down south: “he’s smart but has no common sense.”

  20. EmilianoZ

    Pattern recognition, judgment and creativity are all part of intelligence in the current common use of the term. It’s the ability to understand a problem and find a solution. Although etymologically the word intelligence only refers to the understanding part, it has now evolved to include the problem solving part too (for instance Mc Gyver).

    The 3 components overlap but roughly speaking I would say that pattern recognition and judgment drive the understanding part while creativity is responsible for problem solving.

    Faced with a problem, pattern recognition in overdrive can come up with dozens of different causes. Judgment will select the most likely causes. Judgment can be based on experience (therefore memory).

    Judgement should also help select the solution. Here judgment can be based on ethics. But ethics can be seen as the sum of experience and wisdom accumulated by our ancestors.

  21. nihil obstet

    #1, processing power and pattern recognition, is the one that can be measured. It is, therefore, the one that will be valued in a technocratic society that believes that intelligence will solve our problems.

  22. EmilianoZ

    There may be some overlap between pattern recognition and creativity.

    In science the ability to see the same pattern in 2 sets of very different phenomena seems very important. Physics in particular advances by unification, generalization, abstraction. Before Newton, an apple falling and the movement of celestial bodies were seen as in separate classes of phenomena. Newton said it was the same thing. Maxwell unified disparate phenomena of electricity, magnetism and light in just 4 equations. For some time, physicists have been working (without much success) on some unified field theory of everything.

    But the importance of the ability to see the same pattern in different domains goes beyond science. Let’s take verbal ability for instance. When someone makes a striking comparison, we take it as a sign of creativity. For instance, when Ian welsh compares the processes of the intellect to the driving of a motorcycle.

    Proust put the “metaphor”, the connection of 2 different realities at the center of his work. One famous example (in either “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur” or “Du cote de Guermantes” I cant remember) is his description of a theater. He makes a striking elaborate comparison between the dukes and duchesses in their balconies and mythological monsters in their grottoes.

    But I doubt the IQ tests can catch this ability of making connections between very different domains. The tests seem more focused on sequential patterns in a narrow view.

  23. Lisa

    I’d add direct and related knowledge as a major factor by these ‘smartest people in the room’ (SPITR), without which you just get ‘fast idiots’. they will come to a wrong conclusion faster than a ‘stupid’ person…woopie do.

    Plus the ability to link different pieces of knowledge together. Those who can’t I call ‘Mono minds’…and usually sigh a lot….

    Worse, High IQ plus Creativity without Knowledge = wrong answers with wonderful rationalisations about why they are right.

    Then you have the lack of ‘knowing what you don’t know’. A basic confidence in yourself to be humble, to admit you don’t know something and either go and learn about it or defer to someone who really knows it.

    And not just narrow technical knowledge, but broader (albeit related) knowledge, plus the ability to increase your knowledge when you come across something new (ie do some research).

    The classic I keep coming against is knowing how to model anything properly, there is an actual discipline and methodology (and for the advanced, maths) behind the process of modelling. If you don’t have those skills then the odds are your ‘wonderful’ models will be wrong. Now where is that taught? How many actuaries, economists, business analysts, heck even many so caled data analytics people, actually know the underlying principles. Not many.

    I’ve been in lots of meetings with SPITRs where, with very, very few exceptions they were completely wrong, total SNAFU material. Factors in this were:

    (1) They had no direct knowledge of the subject (but they had so many opinions about it).
    (2) They were arrogant enough to think they could grasp it in seconds (they never did).
    (3) (Very common) They were lazy in not wanting to put in the hard yakka in to understand it properly (or even just the basics).
    (4) (Also very common) they lacked the skills to learn new information and knowledge quickly. Basically they didn’t know how to learn.
    (5) The couldn’t switch between micro details and macro factors. Many people are one or the other, detail minds or broad picture ones. But to grasp complex things properly you have to be able to switch between those modes.
    (6) They did have direct technical knowledge, but were unable to link that to broader (eg organisational and environmental) factors.
    (7) Too many variables. This is where judgement (and modelling skills) really comes in. There may be 50 variables, but only 5 count in making a correct decision/model/etc. Choosing the correct variables is real skill. I’ve seen far too many SPITRs try to include far too many irrelevant variables.
    (8) The counterpart of (7) is missing out extremely significant variables ….. sigh on this one.
    (9) Not keeping up to date with new relevant technical (and related) knowledge, linked to (4).
    (10) Spreadsheets……which I wish had never been invented.

    (3) & (4) are surprisingly common and shows a complete breakdown in the education system. The ability to come to a totally new topic and learn (at least the basics) quickly is not taught. So many people run off of an inadequate knowledge base when outside their base learning. Sometimes called the ‘5 year old syndrome’, the example being the highly qualified surgeon, who is like a 5 year old when commenting on (say) economics.

    This is not helped by arrogance, where the best way to come to grips with something new is find someone who knows a lot about it and ask them heaps of dumb questions. But too many SPITRs don’t want to that, especially if the knowledge holder is perceived as ‘less intelligent’ as them.

    (9) & (10) Are killers, they allow a (thin) veneer of numerical analysis and modelling to be done, without, at best, anything of real value being produced (at worst total FUBAR). Spreadsheets are so limited that reliably modelling anything above balancing your bank account is impossible.

    But many SPITRs can use a spreadsheet and do some rough calculations, without a clue about what they are actually doing, then push those results.

    You combine all these (and other) factors together and SPITRs will get things wrong more often than if you just took a random sample of people off the street and put them to the task at hand.

  24. subgenius

    Is it time to get creatively judgmental ?

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