Monday, January 19, 2009

A high IQ for a Prez ain't THAT important

We're getting a new Prez tomorrow: let's look at the issue of IQ again. I looked at a research article by Dean Simonton ("Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership," Political Psychology, 27, 4, 2006). He seems to do a pretty careful job. He uses multiple ratings by multiple experts with multiple methods to estimate the IQs and the leadership performance of 42 Presidents.

So, what is the correlation between IQ and greatness? It ranges between .31 and .35, depending on the measure of IQ. If we average the correlations, R-squared is .11, which means that IQ tells 11% of the story. (This is fairly close to Charles Murray's estimate of 16%).

On the one hand, cognitive ability is not a trivial matter. As Steve Sailer wrote, IQ is probably more important than any of the other factors you can identify. On the other hand, 11% is not impressive up against everything else--the other 89%. Plus, the 11% would probably be lower in a multivariate analysis.

You might respond that this doesn't make sense because it is simply impossible that someone with, say, a 95 IQ could perform well at such a demanding job. But that is not what the results imply. They are saying that within the range of IQs that we've seen among presidents, differences in IQ are not that critical. From the lowest estimate of 107.8 (Harding) to the highest of 175.0 (J.Q. Adams), the range is high enough for other factors to become important. (By the way, the high estimate for Harding is 139.9).

Quoting Sailer again, quoting Greg Cochran, "What really matters in a leader is not being smart, but being right. Who was smarter? Warren G. Harding or V.I. Lenin? I'm sure Lenin could have beaten Harding in chess, but I definitely would rather have lived under Harding than Lenin. Harding was kind of a dumb bunny, but his prejudices and instincts were much more reasonable than Lenin's, who was wrong about everything."

In my judgment, Obama is smart as hell. So what. He's wrong.

While we're at it, the study puts G.W. Bush's IQ somewhere between 111 and 138.5, with a mean of 125. This is close to the 125-130 range given by Sailer.

Also--see any numbers that seem way off in the table? Why is Coolidge about the same as W. and Harding?


  1. Kennedy's seems way too high. The assessors may have put too much emphasis on his "authorship", as his books were almost certainly ghost-written.

  2. The Undiscovered Jew8:13 PM

    "Why is Coolidge about the same as W.?"

    No friggin way.

    Coolidge translated Dante into English.

    As to IQ and presidential performance,

    Presidents - and national leaders in general - probably don't need a very high IQ to do well because presidents do not need to micromanage how the country operates in the same way a CEO needs to micromanage a single business.

    Presidents can just outsource the complex stuff while paying most attention to the big picture.

    This is why Reagan was a success, he had common sense enough to have sense of the big picture but did not get absorbed with details even though he was quite smart.

    Bush II was a failure because he wasn't smart and didn't really have a well thought out philosophy. He mostly thought and spoke in slogans, "Democracy Good!" "Tax Cuts Good!"

    If you don't have a well thought out position and you aren't too smart then you can delegate too much authority and not realize what is going on around you.

  3. Anonymous9:58 PM

    How about Clinton's being higher in all but one estimate than the author of the Constitution Madison? If that's the estimate, then, like Learned Hand, I say the estimate's an ass.

  4. Anonymous10:03 PM

    Amend my prior reference from Learned Hand to Dickens. Apologies.

  5. Anonymous12:07 AM

    How about a chart which shows number of sex partners for each President?

  6. IQ is just one of the tools necessary for a person to have full toolkit. Too many people focus excessively upon just one tool.

    Executive Function in the frontal lobe is much more important than IQ in terms of life success and competence to achieve. Executive function is trainable between the ages of 4 and 6 years, but after that it becomes more difficult.

    Think of it as a "window of opportunity", more commonly known as a critical period of development. For the seamless learning of multiple languages, the critical window closes somewhere around the age of ten years or so.

    Obama is intelligent in a social way. There is no indication that he is competent otherwise.

  7. bbartlog12:44 PM

    The estimates seem weak. If you look at the columns, some are consistently higher than others (the II-C estimates are almost all > 140 which is fairly ridiculous).
    Anyway, with an IQ of maybe 135 being sufficient to win the presidency even in a competitive year and an IQ of 120 probably enough if circumstances favor the ascension of a mediocrity, I think the number of really high numbers on the chart is pretty excessive. I'm not inclined to nitpick individual estimates when the whole enterprise seems so flawed.

  8. RE: al fin,

    That doesn't make sense since executive function is a contributing factor (like working memory) to performance on IQ tests, aptitude tests, and just about all tests for that matter.

  9. I also want to second (or third for that matter) the fact that the IQ estimates seem way to high for most presidents. However, it shouldn't matter that much since one president will still be in the same IQ ballpark relative to his peers after any adjustments.

  10. It certainly is interesting, Lover, to contemplate the overlap between EF and IQ. But if you want badly enough to improve chances of life success in children, you will train the executive functions of the frontal lobes which do not typically show up on IQ tests. As I said, that training should be done between the ages of 4 and 6. Who knows (?), future intelligence tests may well incorporate testing procedures that better incorporate important components of EF.

    The fact that something that is supported by decades of research does not make sense to you, Lover, should be a reason for you to investigate further, not to dismiss it out of hand, like someone with ADHD would do.

  11. The study is worthless, there;s agood critique of it here:

    Simonton estimate Kennedy's IQ at almost 40 points above what his actual score was. It's liberal wish fulfilment posing as scholarship.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Agree with RWF above. HW's scores immediately jumped out at me as suspiciously low for the Phi Beta Kappa BA in Econ from Yale.

  14. Kennedy's IQ was only 120.


Meta-analysis of clinical trials: Eat walnuts

I am always looking for easy eating choices that are good for you. This new meta-analysis of 26 clinical trials looked to see if walnuts ma...