Followup toThe Level Above Mine

(Anyone who didn't like yesterday's post should probably avoid this one.)

I remember what a shock it was to first meet Steve Jurvetson, of the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Steve Jurvetson talked fast and articulately, could follow long chains of reasoning, was familiar with a wide variety of technologies, and was happy to drag in analogies from outside sciences like biology—good ones, too.

I once saw Eric Drexler present an analogy between biological immune systems and the "active shield" concept in nanotechnology, arguing that just as biological systems managed to stave off invaders without the whole community collapsing, nanotechnological immune systems could do the same.

I thought this was a poor analogy, and was going to point out some flaws during the Q&A.  But Steve Jurvetson, who was in line before me, proceeded to demolish the argument even more thoroughly.  Jurvetson pointed out the evolutionary tradeoff between virulence and transmission that keeps natural viruses in check, talked about how greater interconnectedness led to larger pandemics—it was very nicely done, demolishing the surface analogy by correct reference to deeper biological details.

I was shocked, meeting Steve Jurvetson, because from everything I'd read about venture capitalists before then, VCs were supposed to be fools in business suits, who couldn't understand technology or engineers or the needs of a fragile young startup, but who'd gotten ahold of large amounts of money by dint of seeming reliable to other business suits.

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

Now, yes, Steve Jurvetson is not just a randomly selected big-name venture capitalist.  He is a big-name VC who often shows up at transhumanist conferences.  But I am not drawing a line through just one data point.

I was invited once to a gathering of the mid-level power elite, where around half the attendees were "CEO of something"—mostly technology companies, but occasionally "something" was a public company or a sizable hedge fund.  I was expecting to be the youngest person there, but it turned out that my age wasn't unusual—there were several accomplished individuals who were younger.  This was the point at which I realized that my child prodigy license had officially completely expired.

Now, admittedly, this was a closed conference run by people clueful enough to think "Let's invite Eliezer Yudkowsky" even though I'm not a CEO.  So this was an incredibly cherry-picked sample.  Even so...

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals.  In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others' suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public.  This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.  Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui.  Failing that, your readers want to hear how the upper echelons got there by cheating, or at least smarming their way to the top.  If you said anything as hideous as, "They seem more alive," you'd get lynched.

But I am an independent scholar, not much beholden.  I should be able to say it out loud if anyone can. I'm talking about this topic... for more than one reason; but it is the truth as I see it, and an important truth which others don't talk about (in writing?).  It is something that led me down wrong pathways when I was young and inexperienced.

I used to think—not from experience, but from the general memetic atmosphere I grew up in—that executives were just people who, by dint of superior charisma and butt-kissing, had managed to work their way to the top positions at the corporate hog trough.

No, that was just a more comfortable meme, at least when it comes to what people put down in writing and pass around.  The story of the horrible boss gets passed around more than the story of the boss who is, not just competent, but more competent than you.

But entering the real world, I found out that the average mortal really can't be an executive.  Even the average manager can't function without a higher-level manager above them.  What is it that makes an executive?  I don't know, because I'm not a professional in this area.  If I had to take a guess, I would call it "functioning without recourse"—living without any level above you to take over if you falter, or even to tell you if you're getting it wrong.  To just get it done, even if the problem requires you to do something unusual, without anyone being there to look over your work and pencil in a few corrections.

Now, I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there bearing executive titles who are not executives.

And yet there seem to be a remarkable number of people out there bearing executive titles who actually do have the executive-nature, who can thrive on the final level that gets the job done without recourse.  I'm not going to take sides on whether today's executives are overpaid, but those executive titles occupied by actual executives, are not being paid for nothing.  Someone who can be an executive at all, even a below-average executive, is a rare find.

The people who'd like to be boss of their company, to sit back in that comfortable chair with a lovely golden parachute—most of them couldn't make it.  If you try to drop executive responsibility on someone who lacks executive-nature—on the theory that most people can do it if given the chance—then they'll melt and catch fire.

This is not the sort of unpleasant truth that anyone would warn you about—at least not in books, and all I had read were books.  Who would say it?  A reporter?  It's not news that people want to hear.  An executive?  Who would believe that self-valuing story?

I expect that my life experience constitutes an extremely biased sample of the power elite.  I don't have to deal with the executives of arbitrary corporations, or form business relationships with people I never selected.  I just meet them at gatherings and talk to the interesting ones.

But the business world is not the only venue where I've encountered the upper echelons and discovered that, amazingly, they actually are better at what they do.

Case in point:  Professor Rodney Brooks, CTO of iRobot and former director of the MIT AI Lab, who spoke at the 2007 Singularity Summit.  I had previously known "Rodney Brooks" primarily as the promoter of yet another dreadful nouvelle paradigm in AI—the embodiment of AIs in robots, and the forsaking of deliberation for complicated reflexes that didn't involve modeling.  Definitely not a friend to the Bayesian faction.  Yet somehow Brooks had managed to become a major mainstream name, a household brand in AI...

And by golly, Brooks sounded intelligent and original.  He gave off a visible aura of competence.  (Though not a thousand-year vampire aura of terrifying swift perfection like E.T. Jaynes's carefully crafted book.)  But Brooks could have held his own at any gathering I attended; from his aura I would put him at the Steve Jurvetson level or higher.

(Interesting question:  If I'm not judging Brooks by the goodness of his AI theories, what is it that made him seem smart to me?  I don't remember any stunning epiphanies in his presentation at the Summit.  I didn't talk to him very long in person.  He just came across as... formidable, somehow.)

The major names in an academic field, at least the ones that I run into, often do seem a lot smarter than the average scientist.

I tried—once—going to an interesting-sounding mainstream AI conference that happened to be in my area.  I met ordinary research scholars and looked at their posterboards and read some of their papers.  I watched their presentations and talked to them at lunch.  And they were way below the level of the big names.  I mean, they weren't visibly incompetent, they had their various research interests and I'm sure they were doing passable work on them.  And I gave up and left before the conference was over, because I kept thinking "What am I even doing here?"

An intermediate stratum, above the ordinary scientist but below the ordinary CEO, is that of, say, partners at a non-big-name venture capital firm.  The way their aura feels to me, is that they can hold up one end of an interesting conversation, but they don't sound very original, and they don't sparkle with extra life force.

I wonder if you have to reach the Jurvetson level before thinking outside the "Outside the Box" box starts to become a serious possibility.  Or maybe that art can be taught, but isn't, and the Jurvetson level is where it starts to happen spontaneously.  It's at this level that I talk to people and find that they routinely have interesting thoughts I haven't heard before.

Hedge-fund people sparkle with extra life force.  At least the ones I've talked to.  Large amounts of money seem to attract smart people.  No, really.

If you're wondering how it could be possible that the upper echelons of the world could be genuinely intelligent, and yet the world is so screwed up...

Well, part of that may be due to my biased sample.

Also, I've met a few Congresspersons and they struck me as being at around the non-big-name venture capital level, not the hedge fund level or the Jurvetson level.  (Still, note that e.g. George W. Bush used to sound a lot smarter than he does now.)

But mainly:  It takes an astronomically high threshold of intelligence + experience + rationality before a screwup becomes surprising.  There's "smart" and then there's "smart enough for your cognitive mechanisms to reliably decide to sign up for cryonics".  Einstein was a deist, etc.  See also Eliezer1996 and the edited volume "How Smart People Can Be So Stupid".  I've always been skeptical that Jeff Skilling of Enron was world-class smart, but I can easily visualize him being able to sparkle in conversation.

Still, so far as I can tell, the world's upper echelons—in those few cases I've tested, within that extremely biased sample that I encounter—really are more intelligent.

Not just, "it's who you know, not what you know".  Not just personal charisma and Machiavellian maneuvering.  Not just promotion of incompetents by other incompetents.

I don't say that this never happens.  I'm sure it happens.  I'm sure it's endemic in all sorts of places.

But there's a flip side to the story, which doesn't get talked about so much: you really do find a lot more cream as you move closer to the top.

It's a standard idea that people who make it to the elite, tend to stop talking to ordinary mortals, and only hang out with other people at their level of the elite.

That's easy for me to believe.  But I suspect that the reason is more disturbing than simple snobbery.  A reporter, writing about that, would pass it off as snobbery.  But it makes entire sense in terms of expected utility, from their viewpoint.  Even if all they're doing is looking for someone to talk to—just talk to.

Visiting that gathering of the mid-level power elite, it was suddenly obvious why the people who attended that conference might want to only hang out with other people who attended that conference.  So long as they can talk to each other, there's no point in taking a chance on outsiders who are statistically unlikely to sparkle with the same level of life force.

When you make it to the power elite, there are all sorts of people who want to talk to you.  But until they make it into the power elite, it's not in your interest to take a chance on talking to them.  Frustrating as that seems when you're on the outside trying to get in!  On the inside, it's just more expected fun to hang around people who've already proven themselves competent.  I think that's how it must be, for them.  (I'm not part of that world, though I can walk through it and be recognized as something strange but sparkly.)

There's another world out there, richer in more than money.  Journalists don't report on that part, and instead just talk about the big houses and the yachts.  Maybe the journalists can't perceive it, because you can't discriminate more than one level above your own.  Or maybe it's such an awful truth that no one wants to hear about it, on either side of the fence.  It's easier for me to talk about such things, because, rightly or wrongly, I imagine that I can imagine technologies of an order that could bridge even that gap.

I've never been to a gathering of the top-level elite (World Economic Forum level), so I have no idea if people are even more alive up there, or if the curve turns and starts heading downward.

And really, I've never been to any sort of power-elite gathering except those organized by the sort of person that would invite me.  Maybe that world I've experienced, is only a tiny minority carved out within the power elite.  I really don't know.  If for some reason it made a difference, I'd try to plan for both possibilities.

But I'm pretty sure that, statistically speaking, there's a lot more cream at the top than most people seem willing to admit in writing.

Such is the hideously unfair world we live in, which I do hope to fix.


Part of the sequence Yudkowsky's Coming of Age

Next post: "Above-Average AI Scientists"

Previous post: "The Level Above Mine"

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"This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public."

Charles Murray talked about in "The Bell Curve."

This is very true. When I first interned Congress, I was amazed that everyone who worked there was several cuts above the median in intelligence. Plus, most people were genuinely dedicated and well intentioned. Even many of the lobbyists honestly believed that they were just trying to ensure that the business they worked for got its fair share.

The reason things go wrong, I believe, is the process of Adaptive Fiction. ( see ). Let's say you have 100 very smart people. 99 out of a hundred of these people do not believe that giving more money and power to Washington will make the world a better place. One person honestly does believe it. Because of this, he ends up running for office, while the others end up in science or business. Since this person is smart and sincere, he wins, and now is in Congress. Now as Congressman, he votes the government more power. As part of this funding government, there is more money for schools. These schools in turn teach people that government is good and great. Repeat this cycle enough times, and you have systematic delusion across the country and all throughout government.

6Ben Pace
(aka "Selection effect")

I don't know what to make of the claim that everyone who writes "books," or "reporters," or any group of great interest, generally acts as if CEOs, the "world's upper echelons," and the "power elite" are a bunch of mental defectives. It doesn't seem remotely plausible to me.

Is this really a critique of academic intellectual culture? Academics probably do routinely underestimate the intelligence & competence of businesspeople. I don't have the sense that most of the rest of the civilized world does.

I'm curious: what would you say about the writings of Paul Graham on this topic? It seems like he has a lot of evidence and experience in the field and his opinion differs drastically from yours.

Boris, yes, Paul Graham was one of my sources and seemed trustworthy. That's why I was surprised not to see any of what he described. Maybe I'm just seeing a cherry-picked selection of venture capitalists? Maybe they turn evil when the moon comes out and the term sheets are being negotiated? I really don't know.

Devin, as awful as democracy is, I don't see any reason to doubt the verdict of history that monarchy is worse. Important question: Are Congressional staff brighter than the actual Congresspeople?

Christopher, the objection is not that reporters make out the power elites to be stupid, but that they don't particularly emphasize their intelligence, even though this is one of the most important facts about them.



In my experience, smart people have many original theories. They likely hold these theories because they know they are smarter than most people, and so don't see any reason to trust common knowledge. Also, holding original and complex theories make them seem more intelligent. Most original theories are of course incorrect, even when they come from smart people. Intelligent, charismatic people are very good at convincing themselves and others they are correct.

IMO, this is one of the main reasons those, smart, competent people in charge screw up so often. They don't do it because they aren't smart or competent, they do it because they have a bias in favor of their own ideas and theories, just like everyone else.

This is brilliant.
I couldn't of said it better myself.
The smarter you are, the more likely you are to think you're the exception, and neglect the outside view.
I'd say the smarter you think you are, the more likely you are to think you're the exception. I'd say that saying that IQ positively correlates with overconfidence is a much stronger claim than saying that the overconfidence effect exists.
That curve got to bend at some point -- if you're very very very smart you should realize this and adjust for it.
The other problem is that when they dismiss other people, they dismiss their observations, not just their theories.

Eliezer, thanks for sharpening the point for me. Still, I'm used to your posts catalyzing so much insight that this one continues to strike me as remarkably banal, even naive. I'm probably missing something. Do all that many educated people really think that CEOs of mid-to-upper-level corporations and hedge-fund managers are not generally more intelligent than average?

Equally importantly, the question that this point raises but doesn't address at all: do you think that intelligence dominates driving force behind ascension through corporate hierarchies? ... (read more)

Are people skills, charisma, and leadership not at least partially an aspect of intelligence?
AFAIK the first two aren't correlated with intelligence. Cf geeks stereotypically lack people skills.

but isn't it just as obvious that plenty of people with that kind of riches aren't in business, government, or the power-focused professions?

Sure, but often they don't accomplish as much. People with high intelligence and low drive. And they aren't as concentrated. Generally, the only way you can really get smart people together is if there's an economic reason. Otherwise they're distributed rather evenly throughout the population. (I would say universities count as economic.)

mensa Which exists so smart people can get together and talk to other smart people, for the fun of it.

Christopher, I was surprised by the lack of backlash to this post; I expected much more. In fact, I really don't understand why the Jaynes post got backlash and this one didn't. Maybe all the people I warned not to read it, really didn't. So maybe this was all known to everyone except me.

The men at the power-elite gathering were also noticeably taller than average, so unless that actually correlates to intelligence, there are forces besides pure competence at work.

so unless [height] actually correlates to intelligence

It does. Possibly due to larger brain size and possibly due to better nutrition. Of course, the cause could go both ways: you could be seeing higher intelligence because taller people are viewed as better leaders, and intelligence correlates with height. In reality, the situation is probably more complex than that, and the actual causes of success (as opposed to the correlates) are not well established.

Wikipedia also has an article about that.

But given that the correlation is only 0.2, Eliezer's probably right that there are other advantages.

Devin: Don't forget that Hitler was "genuinely dedicated and well intentioned", too. The road to hell and all that.

I wonder if there's a way to inject a bunch of stupid-to-average people into Congress, who don't know much but how to read the Constitution.

pdf: No, of course, by definition, people who are less power-loving have less desire to manipulate the world on the medium-to-large scale. (At least that's my working definition of "power-loving.") And so it's not surprising that they do so less.

Depending on what kind of ideas you have, and also what you want to do with them -- refine them, put them into the zeitgeist, get them implemented on a mass scale, enjoy having them praised, whatever -- you will want to introduce them to different audiences, and intelligence is only one of the relevant v... (read more)

You seem to be relying almost entirely on your intuitive sense of people being smart, fast, "sparkly" etc. Yes, people at the top are good at giving other top people the impression they are smart. The question though is whether they are actually more productive in other ways. To evaluate that you need to look at metrics other than how sparkly the seem to you.

I had the same worry at seeing him gush.

However, the conclusion that there is a higher probability of meeting high-intellect people in power/reputation elites compared to lesser tiers, seems undeniable, since we believe smarts increase effectiveness.

Eliezer was excited by wondering whether the difference might be dramatic. I think it isn't, but our tendency to be inordinately excited by high status people might still make it worth seeking out their company if we can do so. Certainly the magical status sparkles may rub off on us ;)

From Eliezer's post:

And by golly, Brooks sounded intelligent and original. He gave off a visible aura of competence. (Though not a thousand-year vampire aura of terrifying swift perfection like E.T. Jaynes's carefully crafted book.)

The obvious explanation for the sparks is that Brooks and the other sparkly people must only be the lesser Twilight-type vampires.


Your assessment of the CEOs is based on how impressive they seem. Keep in mind that one of the main jobs of a CEO is being a good schmoozer and an inspiring leader. They are selected for their ability to appear smart, to convince others to follow their ideas, and generally to "sparkle". Of course it helps if they actually are smart, but that's not the primary criterion.

What happens if you base your assessment only what they've personally accomplished or written (as for Jaynes) where it can be separated from their charisma and force of personality? I'm guessing most of them wouldn't nearly do so well.

FWIW, I received a rather negative impression of Steve Jurvetson from his 2007 Singularity Summit talk.

My impression was of a nice guy who had been asked to stand on a stage an talk about something he didn't know much about.

This seems like an odd point in time to be singing the glories of how smart elites are. The presumably pretty smart elites in the financial industry have just screwed up big time. This has become so common that it has generated an entire subgenre of finance books. Are these guys "full of life", or full of something else?

Intelligence is often devoted to optimizing the wrong things. It's overrated. The ability to optimize some quantity is not what you should be optimizing.

I once saw Eric Drexler present an analogy between biological immune systems and the "active shield" concept in nanotechnology, arguing that just as biological systems managed to stave off invaders without the whole community collapsing, nanotechnological immune systems could do the same. I thought this was a poor analogy, and was going to point out some flaws during the Q&A.

Nanotech agents will probably have real immune systems (not merely analogous subsystems) - just as computers have real immune systems today - in the form of anti-virus ... (read more)

You might well have been able to make the same observation about the senior planning officials in Gosplan and the Soviet industrial ministries. The problem is that nobody's "smart" and "competent" enough to administer a planned economy, and that's what a corporation is. The question isn't how "smart" or "competent" senior management is, but the nature of the information they act on given Hayekian information problems. More specifically, are they (as Kenneth Boulding said) in progressively more tangential contact with reality, the further up the hierarchy they are, until the guy at the top of the pyramid is living in a completely imaginary world based on information filtered from below. This is how hierarchies work--it's what R.A. Wilson called the Snafu Principle.

We have such large organizations, so isolated from genuine market data, that nobody's smart enough to run them. The solution is not to find the smartest guy you can to make CEO and put in charge of an enormous hierarchy. It's to reshape organizations so that 1) information problems are reduced by putting authority in the hands of people who are dealing directly with the situation, and 2) agency problems are reduced by eliminating the conflict of interest involved in hierarchy as a result of the ability to externalize the costs of decisions on those below.

Robin makes a good point. Whatever your opinion of Brooks and Brooks's vision for AI, the fact remains that the man has been incredibly productive. His position at the top of the AI food chain is not due to his incredible personal magnetism, or not principally. It's due to the fact that he builds real things, that you can pick up and hold in your hands, that do real things, that you can measure. It's easy enough to dismiss his robots, and his vision of intelligence, and his vision for how to get to "real" intelligence, as silly, and counterin... (read more)

P.S. Competence can actually be counterproductive, from everyone else's standpoint, when there's a conflict of interest involved.

Even stipulating that (say) Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, and "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap are really a bunch of geniuses, how do you explain the fact that they screw up so bad. Either they really are smart, and are pursuing their self-interest in an intelligent manner that just happens to be at odds with the interest of the "little people" in the company, or they're just incompetent and following the flawed MBA play... (read more)

It appears you have a singular definition of competence - obviously successful people are talented in their own field, but what does it mean to be talented?

We are lucky to live in a relative meritocracy. Beyond that (painful) acknowledgment, ranking people is absurd.

Smart, happy, and alive? That fits my observations. Not bad morally? Only in the Bay area. Also, I think that more successful people seem smarter etc due to halo effect, and the ability to seem smart and alive and generally appealing, even moral, is called social skill or charisma and contributes a lot to a person's rise in power. You may have noticed that these people were also much better looking than average.

At the most elite gathering I have attended, the Clinton Giving Initiative, about one person in five was really interesting and shiny.

That said, my impression of start-ups is that relative to their importance the founder/CEO generally gets badly under-compensated. Successful founder/CEOs are generally extremely capable people in their domains.

BTW, there are plenty of management consultants to look over executive's shoulders and pencil in corrections. Also, I keep telling you, Einstein was NOT a deist in the sense that you understand it. I wish someone would ask Carl Feynman why his dad didn't sign up for cryonics given that he knew Drexler.

I don't want to generalize - but I was once promoted to be a manager - and what I discovered is that it became so easy to give some 'out of the box' thinking advices to the other programmers reporting to me then. I explain that by the fact that I was both indeed outside of the box of their task and also having vital interest in their work - so I did pay much attention to it.

Even the Ottoman tax farmer approach worked pretty well with a good CEO/Sultan, largely because it was a fairly flat structure with people acting autonomously. The Sultan provided the right incentives, and right up until Suleiman the Magnificent changed it for his successors the system threw up high quality Sultans. It was pretty much devised by Sultan Orhan's brother and vizier Aladdin.

Robin: I can see how "sparkle" can be used to impress people less intelligent or equal. But how could it be used to fake intellect when seen by somebody presumably smarter? Even somebody who was a fast cache would be limited to the material they knew, and would risk the smart guy recognizing a source. The only strategy I can see is to carefully steer clear of shared competences.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.

Don't forget, elites tend to be healthier and longer-lived too.

For me, a highlight of each year is a multi-day gathering of about 40 individuals selected for their intelligence, integrity and passion to make the world a better place. We share our current thinking and projects and actively refine and synergize plans for the year ahead. Nearly everyone there displays perceptiveness, creativity, joy of life, "sparkle", well above the norm, but -- these qualities are NOT highly predictive of effectiveness outside the individual's preferred environment.

It's not hard to imagine that all the power elite people you mention were so much more charismatic than you that you "couldn't discriminate more than one level above" your own charisma. That halo effect that Michael Vassar mentioned. Not that they weren't smart and competent but, charisma can be used to make you seem more smart and competent in the same way that I see you as more charismatic than you really are because you are smarter and more competent than me.

Does the unusual tenor of this post have anything to do with the upcoming Singularity Summit and its potential for fund-raising?

Don't try to fix what is not broken. Would you rather be governed by a moron? And by governor I don't mean any clown TV-splashed politician.

Devin, as awful as democracy is, I don't see any reason to doubt the verdict of history that monarchy is worse. Important question: Are Congressional staff brighter than the actual Congresspeople?

Are you aware that the victors write the history? Pick up a Chinese history book and you'll read about what a swell guy Mao was. Sure some things he did were a bit suboptimal, but in general, he was a great man that was a blessing for China. The United States has a $1 trillion state education system. What kind of myths has it have filled your head with?

If you ... (read more)

You've only talked about transitions (which are always bloody) and fallout from transitions , while people adjust. I'd rather hear about the actual differences in living conditions under the different political systems once they've stabilised. I don't know enough about it, but it might be interesting to compare living conditions of Rome under democratic rule vs during the years of empire.
Rome was never a democracy in anything like the sense we understand it (only a tiny proportion of the population could vote, certain level of wealth was required to run for office etc.). But in general democracies seem to have higher living standards, While obviously its difficult to control for other factors, natural experiments might be different states in south america and africa which moved to democracy at different times.

Something to bear in mind. There exists a feedback loop whereby social status and the approval of others, (whether justified or not)increases confidence and self-assurance driving that social status higher still.

It seems quite possible that elites are "sparkly" because of their social status rather than the other way around.

Such is the hideously unfair world we live in

What's unfair? You're saying merit succeeds, that merit isn't a mixed blessing. Seems fair to me.

"This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public."

Charles Murray talked about in "The Bell Curve." And Ayn Rand wrote about it repeatedly.

There's "smart" and then there's "smart enough for your cognitive mechanisms to reliably decide to sign up for cryonics".
And then there's "smart enough not to use a terribly controversial and questionable position, which has repeatedly been the basis for criticism of my judgment, as an example of an extremely intelligent decision".

As a parting note: some of you, being unaware of the etymology and history of the concept of 'charisma', would do well to familiarize yourselves with its meaning.


Eliezer I'll concede you may even be smarter than House, M.D., can't wait for the series FAI:Blog "that intelligence.." puts on sunglasses "is boxed." credits.

I always thought smart people do stupid things and screw up our world because evolution gave us greed and a sex drive. If there's more to it, then I'd be surprised, perhaps enlightened. But without them I'd be staring at cave walls right now. Interesting post but return to AGI nittygritty soon.

Just wandered in. What an interesting conversation.


Eliezer, perhaps you were expecting them to seem like A-holes or snobs. That is not the case. They are indeed somewhat smarter than average. They also tend to be very charismatic or "shiny" which makes them seem smarter still. That doesn't necessarily mean they are smart enough or motivated to fix the problems of the world.

Perhaps there are better models of the world than the Approval/Disapproval of Eletes dichotomy.

Isn't there quite a bit of selection bias involved here? Perhaps some level of native intelligence is required to be in the elite (or strongly correlated to it at least) but don't you have to see how many equally intelligent people are toiling away outside the elite to determine if greater intelligence is sufficient? Wouldn't Bayes be a little disappointed with thispost? Also, you observe that people who are in the elite seem happier and more fulfilled than the average. That doesn't really seem that surprising to me -- after all they are already pretty far... (read more)

Have you ever met and identified a sociopath before? Until you've seen one in action and understand some of their tricks, they can appear to be incredibly smart and effective.


It would be interesting to see some intelligence metrics of:

  1. CEOs of big companies
  2. CEOs of startups
  3. College Professors
  4. Computer Programmers
  5. Doctors
  6. Chemical Engineers

And decide if the CEOs you are talking about are more intelligent (IQ measure) than all the other groups mentioned above. If the mean IQ of CEOs is not more than the mean IQ of say Doctors, then yes, it is legitimate for people to feel that the CEOs don't deserve to be where they are and feel a bit bitter about it. I don't think a story depicting say a neurosurgeon being happy, healthy, liv... (read more)

IQ isn't good enough. It's not the only talent required to lead. People have to want to work for you and see your vision. I believe leadership ability and charisma should reasonably be considered aspects of intelligence, but they're not the type that would show up on an IQ test.
Some component of both leadership ability and charisma will show up in an IQ test. IQ helps for those things. There will just be a somewhat weaker correlation between IQ and measures specific to 'leadership ability' and 'charisma' than there is between IQ and measures of mathematical ability. Most significantly because height and facial symmetry aren't directly useful for solving equations.
The correlation between IQ and leadership is absolutely there, because some baseline IQ is a prerequisite for reasonable leadership ability. You can't lead without basic logic abilities or some ability to see patterns, and I would consider leadership and charisma as aspects of intelligence. I made that comment elsewhere in reply to a different comment. However, neither is easy to measure objectively, and these abilities are not measured on an IQ test. It is very possible to have a genius-level IQ and be awful with people. I would possibly even go farther. I would guess that high IQ people are likely to be closer to the extrema of leadership skills than the general population. Intelligent people who are naturally good with people can apply their intelligence to improving their people skills, and bring themselves closer to the higher extreme. Meanwhile, those closer to the lower extreme are probably more likely than the average person to throw themselves into projects they are good at and decide social interactions are a waste of their time. That second paragraph is entirely speculation and I have no data to back it up, however, I think the point that while there is some correlation, it is not strong, and that more data would be useful in the original study proposed, is valid.
To a degree, charisma can be learned. Yes, there are some people with natural advantages (height, symmetrical face); but Napoleon is still revered as a leader, despite being famously short. The right clothes, the right posture, the right attitude, and you could probably persuade most people to do just about anything that doesn't have immediate negative effects on them (you could probably even persuade some people to do things that do have minor immediate negative effects). Take a look at the Real Life section on this tvtropes page for examples...
Absolutely. That is the reason for the speculation I provided in the second paragraph. Innate ability is also a large factor, and I think, while improving your charisma is useful for anyone, some intelligent people, primarily those without as much natural ability, pass this up as "not of value".
My understanding is that Napoleon's shortness is a myth. His height was above the average for a Frenchman at the time.
Napoleon wasn't short More detail, including confusion possibly caused by English and French inches being different sizes.
Interesting. The man most famous for being a short leader may not have been as short as he's rumoured to have been. Despite the fact that I seem to have picked a bad example, there are still a number of short leaders in history; height is a factor, and perhaps an important one, but hardly the only one. There's a list of a few short Russian leaders over here - and, incidentally, if one puts "Lenin height" into Google, Google will actually display Lenin's height above the search results. (Google's heights indicate that the heights on the Yahoo question seem to be a few centimetres short - Lenin was 165cm according to Google, Stalin was 173cm, Putin was 165cm. No result shown for Kruschev.) Average male height in Russia, around 2006-2008, seems to be 176.2cm. And all of them are tall compared to Benito Juárez, the shortest world leader ever at 137cm, or 4ft 6in.

It's interesting that you mention Rodney Brooks. I've always found his work poorly written and lacking in clarity despite being sympathetic to his views. He must come across better in person. As Shane points out though, Brooks' work has the rare quality in AI that it is productive and has found widespread application in industry.

As for the Venture Capitalists, I don't find it surprising that Silicon Valley VCs share some of your interests. It's like discovering that software engineers share an interest in AD&D and collectibles. All these guys are enthu... (read more)

"Hedge-fund people sparkle with extra life force. At least the ones I've talked to. Large amounts of money seem to attract smart people."

That is impossible to dispute. Might the statement, though, indicate the happy glow of survivorship and the survivor bias? After all, what of all the other hedge fund people, smart ones no less, who were also attracted to large amounts of money, but whose fortunes fared less well? Some of the clues include multiple references to "aura," "sparkle," and "life force." Does framin... (read more)

It's true that we don't like to think people better-off than us might be better than us. But two caveats:

  1. Just because the cream is concentrated at the top, doesn't mean that most of the cream (or the best cream) is at the top.

  2. Causation probably runs both ways on this one. There is a lot of evidence that richer and more-respected people are happier and healthier. Various explanations have been tried to explain this, including the explanation that health causes career success. That explanation turned out to have serious problems, although I can't no

... (read more)
Not hard to find SAGE; 'SAGE anti-aging conference' combined with restricting Google search to 2003-2005 turned up a citation to its website as the fourth hit:
What about a third factor being the crucial decider in both, such the ability to handle/minimize stress levels? As you rise nearer to the top, stress increases. Those most able to adapt to it continue to rise, because high stress levels have a negative effect on brain function, and eventually the people who can't handle the stress are forced to fold. Stress also weakens the immune system and has other negative effects on health. Logically it should hold that being able to effectively decrease stress would maximize both your chance to rise to the top and your health.

My God this is a bunch of crap! What the hell is wrong with you people?


I don't understand why you would find it confusing for the 'elites' to screw up when trying to run governments or otherwise improve the world. Human motivation is the same at any level on the power curve or on the intelligence curve. Those people screw up at improving the world because the goals they're trying to attain is greater wealth, power, and influence for themselves. If those at the top concerned themselves with improving the lot of people at the bottom, maybe they would succeed at it. However, unless they actually make the effort (human nature being what it is, this will never happen), nothing will change.

The observations in this post gel with my experience also.

Middle managers can be the most short-sided, penny-pinching, over-simplifying people in the world. But when you talk to CEOs they are often well-spoken, well-read, philosophical, long-term.

You ask them a business question and expect to get back balance sheets, dollars, etc. but instead you get something surprisingly wide-ranging/philosophical.

This rings true with my experiences in one of the top management consulting firms (both on consultant and client side). The higher up you get, the smarter the people in general become, many of the top brass actually are interested in the big picture much more than the immediate balance sheet (in some cases so much that it becomes hard gathering the hard data you would need now). Many are ready to challenge conventional wisdom or drop their agenda for a while if you present them with a genuinely unconventional idea.
Middle management is somewhat split, th... (read more)

There was one element of your article that stood out particularly strongly to me: you seem to recognize that Einstein operated at a level above your own, but yet you appear to mock his deism.

If Einstein functioned at a higher level, how do you know that his reasons for being a deist were not better than your reasons for being a whatever-you-happen-to-be?

It seems to me that there might be an element of bias to your religious (or non-religious) views for such a comment to be tossed out so casually.

I'm not stating with certainty that there is bias (I have not read much of your blog), but it seems to be an area that could benefit from further elaboration.

Einstein was a deist, etc.
Except that he wasn't -- 'deist' is a well-defined concept that is not compatible with Einstein's avowed beliefs.

Einstein was an atheist who liked to personify the ultimate nature of reality as a way of blending in with the societies in which he existed.

First a comment on a small, specific point you made: I have met a large number of VC's during the last 11 years, and in terms of intelligence and insight I really found them to be all over the map. Some brilliant, wide-ranging thinkers ... some narrow-minded morons. Hard to generalize.

Regarding happiness, if you're not familiar with it you might want to look at the work on flow and optimal experience:

which is likely relevant to why many successful CEO's would habitually ... (read more)


You didn't see any of the behavior that Paul Graham described because he is describing the venture capitalist/entrepreneur/investment interface while you are describing the venture capitalist/conference/marketing interface. Being sparkly in conversation doesn't produce much work.


"functioning without recourse"

Is here anyone in this world who is NOT functioning without resource? The Sudanese refugee crossing the Sinai desert to get into Israel, is not functioning without resource? The runaway 15 years old girl in America is not functioning without resource? The Bronx accountant sent to jail has any resource? We are all forced sometime in our lives to survive without any outer help and direction. From the amoeba up, we are all self motivated automathons.

I think EY meant functioning without recourse to somebody above you that already knows about this stuff and can guide you... In all the examples you gave, the person has access to somebody that knows about that kind of thing, but it is possible, for example, to learn so much of something - that there is nobody else that knows as much about it as you. What do you do then to figure out a problem that nobody else has the ability to help you with it? But even in well-known fields - there is nothing wrong with asking for help on something... but if you are incapable of solving problems without help - then you will be restricted to solving problems for which help is available (both available in general, and available right now when you need it). What will you do if suddenly you have a problem and nobody is available to help you? If you are the kind of person who can still figure things out, even when help is not available to you right now, then you are able to solve more problems and thus rise higher. I think this is what the post was driving at.

Feels like there's a lot of stuff muddled up in this discussion.

For what the anecdote is worth, I went to Harvard Business School, a self-styled pantheon for the business elite.

The average person was:
- top decile intellect (though probably not higher)
- top decile emotional intelligence (broadly construed - socially aware, self-aware, persuasion skills, etc.)
- highly conscientious / motivated

Few were truly brilliant intellectually. Few were academically distinguished (plenty of good ivy league degrees, but very few brilliant mathematical minds, etc.).

A... (read more)

Notes: 1) HBS's latest incoming class has a median GMAT score of 730 ( ) 2) Mensa, which is supposed to represent the top 2% of the population, accepts a GMAT score above the 95th %-ile as qualification for membership ( ) 3) A GMAT score of 730 is at the 96th %-ile ( ) Putting it all together, the median HBS student is at about the 98th %-ile in IQ. So the 'top decile' estimate is off by a factor of 5.
No comment on his ability to dazzle, but Ballmer certainly does have a high IQ:

Steve Pavlina (personal development for smart people) explains why he doesn't take email from the general public any more.

(My apologies if it turns out you no longer hold the opinions I'm responding to. I'm new here.)

Still, so far as I can tell, the world's upper echelons - in those few cases I've tested, within that extremely biased sample that I encounter - really are more intelligent.

You have acknowledged the problem with the method by which you arrived at these views, and then gone right on asserting them.

I seem to recall that you dislike this behavior in others:

It is all too easy to meet every counterargument by saying, "Well, of course I could be wrong." Then, having dutifully genuflected in the direction of Modesty, having made the required obeisance, you can go on about your way without changing a thing.

Perhaps you only find this sort of hypothesis troublesome when people keep on believing it despite other people's objections? Are your self-criticisms exempt? If not, I really don't see how you're supporting the notion that people in power-elites are generally more competent than people who aren't. You've identified the fault in the belief already; you've said in as many words that your sample is severely biased.

If you went looking for power-elites full of lucky bastards or e... (read more)

This post rings true to me based on my personal experience. If you buy into the logic of the original post (and I’m betting that at least its author does) you should consider reevaluating your views towards other filtration systems. Plenty of institutions engage in filtering besides corporations, and those institutions are subject to the same reporting bias and comforting lie bias that would apply here.

Reading this I felt so... excited. This is genuinely good news. Like the childhood you, most of my experience of life consists of not actually meeting people and doing things, but of reading books and what have you. As a result, I had deliberately killed my sense of ambition, because on some level I equated success with unhappiness. The idea that smarter, more successful people are happier as well... that changes things.

An anecdote about Jeff Bezos's laserlike focus, etc.:

Such is the hideously unfair world we live in, which I do hope to fix.

Speaking as a non-sparkly, not-very-alive person, who will probably never get to talk to anyone who is particularly sparkly or alive except as a disembodied sequence of characters on a rationalist blog, I have to wonder whether it's more efficient to "fix" the less-sparkly and less-alive of us via uplift, or simply by recognizing that we're made of atoms that could be put to better use.

Hw many individuals are you aware of about whom you are confident that there are no better uses to which their atoms could be put?
I don't know that I'm qualified to make that call. I think I'd rather defer to people with more and better-optimized processing capacity. But... it often seems that everything worth preserving about humans, is really only worth preserving in some humans, and the rest of us are really just redundant expressions of the same traits.
I assure you, I don't intend to implement a culling strategy based on your answer. I'm just curious about your answer.
Very well. In that case, I'd like to note that "confident that there are no better uses to which their atoms could be put" seems, to me, to be a very non-Bayesian way of looking at things. I'd rather say that I know many people for whom I have weak prior weight (0.55 - 0.7) towards the idea that they would be better off recycled, and I know a smaller number of people for whom I have reasonably strong prior weight (0.8 - 0.9) that they have contributed causally to changes in the local universe that I consider positive, and that any other configuration of atoms that might have contributed to an equally positive change would take longer to search for in configuration space than simply letting them continue to exist as-is.
That's fine. I adopted the "no better uses" formulation because you initially seemed to be contrasting them with the less-sparkly and less-alive of us who you seemed confident are made of atoms that can be put to better use, and I was trying to stay consistent with that usage, I'm not committed to it. So, rephrasing my question in the terms you use here: How many individuals are you aware of for whom you have a reasonably strong prior weight that any other configuration of atoms that will contribute to equally positive changes in the future as their current configuration would take longer to search for in configuration space than simply letting them continue to exist as-is?
Heh. MAN, English sucks for this. I'd say a few hundred that I'm directly aware of (either through direct acquaintance or media awareness); given my sample sizes and some back-of-the-envelope math, I can extrapolate that out globally to "a few million people".
(nods) kk, thanks
The former is a special case of the latter (assuming by “better” you mean ‘better than the status quo’ rather than ‘better than fixing us via uplift’).
Granted. But it's a special case with what some people consider a very important distinction - a conscious awareness is preserved instead of obliterated. Personal example: In general, sharing my thoughts anywhere results in the local equivalent of downvoting. This has taught me two habits: 1. Constantly asking others whether my thoughts are appropriate (and various resulting meta-questions) and 1. Constantly double-checking myself to see whether my thoughts are worth having. Since, statistically, they AREN'T appropriate or worth having, it seems that my brain is simply a device for converting glucose into entropy. So why not shut it off and recycle it into something with actually useful output? This argument can be extended to include many, many other people. Certainly, instinctive human morality generates a desire to preserve other human beings, but certainly not ALL of them. So why preserve the ones that aren't going to substantially improve the preserver's life?
In the human case of human- or human-equivalent preservers, the risks of incomplete information or corrupted thinking make any such evaluation -- or even self-evaluation -- exceptionally risky, for fairly minimal payoff. Atoms are cheap; human neurology is expensive. Presumably, any remotely friendly optimizing program will similarly want to preserve other minds : this is generally a tautology. Paving over the universe with smiling pictures of you is one of the go-to doomsday scenarios in this community. At a practical level, the difference between modern human minds can not possibly be that large. There isn't that much variation in humanity : humans are not only very nearly clones, you are inbred clones. The difference between Einstein and an average person reside entirely in the patterns within a kilogram of fatty meat, and likely in less than a tenth or hundredth or thousandth of that material. The difference between Einstein and someone else's component atoms involves a vast deal more entropy. ((There's a deeper question of whether it's that different to you as yourself whether we uplift you or recycle your atoms, but that has to do with matters of identity, continuity of experience, and whether you reject any form of metaphysical dualism, similar to the Transporter Problem.)) At a simpler level, you'd have to be less sympathetic to the Working Man than even Ayn Rand characters in Atlas Shrugged, which while not a strict test, still strikes me as a meaningful one.
Whose utility function you aim to satisfy with this?

There is also the possibility that the 'conversational sparkling' you noted is noticeable to many people, and can be faked. If you can project a sense of overwhelming competence without actually acquiring that competence, you get people to defer to you, and that sends you up to the high echelons almost as quickly as the impressive competence itself would.

Also, I know from reliable second-hand observations (family) that much of the high-level power jockeying is "cheating", in the sense that situations which are known to be deteriorating, but whose deterioration is not publicly visible, are pawned off on someone unaware of the problem (i.e. the CEO leaves six months before he sees the crash as likely, and lets the former CFO or something take over) who then takes the fall, through no fault of their own. (This comes from someone who is frequently at the level just below these machinations in a good position to observe, and who has specifically avoided accepting promotions to that level to avoid them. I'm reasonably certain this is not sour grapes.)

I have observed all of this myself; now I wonder what we could observe to distinguish between those possible worlds. How would the world work if 'aliveness' was an honest signal, vs. how would it look if it was a runaway hypersignal, vs. how would it look if smart and clueful people who weren't "alive" were less likely to wind up at those sorts of conferences?

[What makes an executive might be] "functioning without recourse"—living without any level above you to take over if you falter, or even to tell you if you're getting it wrong

Alternatively, successful executives might be defined by "always having recourses" -- a large-enough social network, blame-shifting ability, and general competence.

The reason the power elite don't talk to mortals is not because the mortals are boring.

Try to help a mortal become power elite and you'll discover something interesting: it can't be done.

And not only this: they have all kinds of self-limiting coping mechanisms that invariably make them attack you for even attempting to help them,

The reason the power elite don't talk to mortals is they don't want competition

I am curious if you still feel this way (and about the Level Above Mine) after 14 years. While I agree all the execs I have met have a high level of competence and energy, what they have competence in tends to vary greatly. ie. some are well rounded; fit, great at managing at all levels, charismatic, and able to discern information and value in ideas, business and people with relative ease. On the other hand, I’ve met execs that are incredibly good at a small selection of skills: ie. having energy, working hard, and able to relentlessly fine tune a budget ... (read more)