I like to make fun of my dog sometimes for being dumb. Affectionately. I'll say things like "That's not for you dumb dumbs!" when he tries to eat food that will clearly end up giving him a stomach ache and making him nauseous.

A few years ago I did this in front of my girlfriend's mom. She laughed and told me to stop making fun of him. Perhaps due to my instinct to be disagreeable, my response was "What's wrong with being dumb?".

My dog doesn't care about intelligence. He just cares about cuddles, love, being part of the pack, food, naps, and some good sniffs. And I for one endorse those values. So I'll ask the question again: what's wrong with being dumb?

Well, intelligence is a useful characteristic. As a society, by rewarding intelligence with higher social status, we incentivize things like scientific discoveries and new technologies. And by punishing a lack of intelligence — dumbness — we prevent people from injecting bleach into their veins. Or at least reduce the number of times that it happens.

But that's looking at things through a macroscopic, society-oriented lens. What if we zoom in and, to stereotype, look at a dumb farmer named Frank?

Frank is dumb. You can reward him for being smart all you want, but that's just not gonna get him to take any community college classes. He is content with his life. It works for him. He enjoys his job, loves his family, owns his home, and just isn't interested in change.

He does do some dumb things that are instrumentally harmful though. For example, he doesn't believe in medicine and hasn't seen a doctor in 30 years. Seeing a doctor would, let's assume for the hypothetical, extend his life by 10 years. But in practice, you're just not gonna change his mind. So why badger him about it? Why piss him off and frustrate yourself along the way? And similarly, he's not gonna be winning any Nobel Prizes or inventing new technologies, so why push for those community college classes?

We have a confusing situation here. If we look through the macroscopic, society-oriented lens, it probably does make sense to reward intelligence and punish dumbness. But if we zoom in and look at things from an individual level, rarely does it make sense to do any of that.

Maybe it's not confusing though. Maybe there's no dilemma. There are just two different answers. If you have some sort of God's eye view and are able to set the norms of society, it'd make sense to reward intelligence and punish dumbness. But if you are Frank's cousin, there's no point in doing either. That's what seems like it'd make sense to me, but I'm not sure.


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"We have a confusing situation here."  -- Indeed, I think this post is a little confused, mixing up a few very different questions:

  • Is it a good idea to literally punish & reward people based on their level of intelligence, in the hopes that they will spontaneously make themselves more intelligent?
    • Usually no, as your example of Frank illustrates.  Because your own intelligence level is a hard thing to change.  Punishing people for being born dumb is thus a bit like punishing people for being born short -- pointless to try and get people to change something that they can't change.
  • Is it a good idea to reward intellectual achievements and hard work on important problems, while punishing laziness / wasted time / underperformance?  And similarly, to reward open-minded thoughtfulness while punishing "lazy thinking" and knee-jerk responses.
    • Yes, because this is a way of motivating people about something they can change -- what they choose to work on, and how hard they work, and etc.  It's a good thing that we have Nobel Prizes to reward people who discover breakthrough cancer medicines, but not for people who discover breakthrough strategies in esports videogames, or for that matter Nobel Prizes for people who just sit around watching TV.  For instance, it would be a good idea to praise Frank when he does a good job at work, or if he shows a bit of openness towards the idea of going to the doctor.
  • Is it a good idea to effectively "reward" & "punish" people on a societal level, by trying to have a meritocratic society where we find the smartest (and hardest-working, and most prosocial, and otherwise virtuous) people to run important institutions, while dumb people get less well-paying, less-impactful jobs?
    • Yes, because a society/corporation/government/etc run by effective, virtuous people will work more smoothly and create a better life for everyone.  For instance, I would rather have you be my financial advisor, than have your dog be my financial advisor!
  • Is intelligence good for happiness on an individual level, or is it better for your own sake to be dumb?
    • Opinions differ on this; personally I think that intelligence is very good for personal happiness and life-satisfaction and living a meaningful life.  Here I will quote from another comment I recently made: "You could probably find some narrowly-defined type of happiness which is anticorrelated with intelligence.  But a lot of the meaning and happiness in my life seem like they would get better with more intelligence.  Like my ability to understand my place in the world and live an independent life, planning my career/relationships/etc with lots of personal agency.  Or my ability to appreciate the texture/experience of being alive -- noticing sensations, taking time to "smell the roses", and making meditative/spiritual/introspective progress of understanding my own mind.  My ability to overcome emotional difficulties/setbacks by 'working through them' and communicating well with the person I might be angry at.  My material quality of life, enabled by my high-income job, which I couldn't hold down if I wasn't reasonably smart.  My ability to appreciate art on a deep level (see my lecture series about the videogame "The Witness", an intellectual pursuit which brings me great joy).  And so forth."

Yeah, I like how you further divide this up into more specific questions and I generally agree with your answers to those questions.

Re: happiness, it's that meme graph: Dumb: low expectations, low results, is happy Top: can self-modify expectations to match reality: is happy Muddled middle: takes expectations from environment, can't achieve them, is unhappy.

This is funny, although of course what this is really pointing to isn't a literal U-shaped graph, but that it's really better to think about this in a much more multidimensional way, rather than just trying to graph happiness vs intelligence.  Of course there are all sorts of other traits (like conscientiousness, etc) that might influence happiness.  But more importantly IMO is what you are pointing to -- there are all sorts of different "mindsets" that you can take towards your life, which have a huge impact on happiness... maybe high-IQ slightly helps you grope your way towards a healthier mindset, but to a large extent these mindsets / life philosophies seem independent of intelligence.  By "mindset", I am thinking of things like:

-  "internal vs external locus of control"
- level of expectations like you say, applied to lots of different life areas where we have expectations
- stoic vs neurotic/catastrophizing attitude towards events
- how you relate to / take expectations and desires your social environment (trying to keep up with the joneses, vs deliberately rebelling, vs lots of other stances).
- being really hard on yourself vs having self-compassion vs etc

And so on; too many to mention.

Related thought: because intelligence is often a proxy for status, calling someone or something dumb implies low status. This is why, for example, I think people get really worked up about IQ: being smart is not a matter of simple fact, but a matter of status assignment. As a society we effectively punish people for being dumb, and so naturally the 50% of the population that's below the mean has a strong incentive to fight back if you try to make explicit a way in which they may be treated as having lower status. Heck, it's worse than that: if you're not in the top quartile it's probably worth doing as much as you can to hide exactly how intelligent you are so you may sometimes be able to fake greater intelligence and thereby bid for greater status and avoid the risk of being handed low status by others.

(I don't really think this is right, especially to the extent people assign not just status but moral worth by level of intelligence. I argue here that this is what's going on in society, not to claim this is a good norm.)

I like how you phrased that and agree that descriptively, this is what seems to be going on.

So if a Rationality Quotient (RQ) became famous for only measuring skills that everyone can build regardless of where they start, rather than innate ability, it'd be less infected than the discourse around IQ?

If rich people can hire tutors that will reliably increase the RQ of their kids over the RQ of their peers, I can imagine RQ becoming quite popular and politically acceptable to talk about.

Similarly for IQ, once we have the technology that will let rich people genetically design their kids to have IQ around 200, while everyone else is stuck with IQ 100 on average.

So far, the only measure of intellect one talks about in a polite company is education. The thing that correlates positively with intelligence, but also can be bought. (In other words, where you can buy your membership among the intelligent.)

To make IQ more popular, I propose to establish a society called Excellensa, where you can get membership in two ways: either score IQ 150 or more on a valid IQ test, or pay $1,000,000 donation to Excellensa. The information about who gained the member which way will be forever kept secret. People who pass the IQ 150 test and become members will receive a one-time reward of $10,000, to incentivize smart people to take the test and join. The rest of the donated money will be used to promote the society as "a society of supreme intellect". I predict that most objections against discussing one's IQ or membership in Excellensa would disappear overnight.

I don't agree with that model of acceptance noticing dimensions of variance among individuals.  Education is used because it's at least nominally available to everyone, even if it's actually mostly caused by individual capability, effort, and parental resources (not necessarily in that order).  It's objective enough to be easy, and correlated enough to important things (how useful it would be to invest energy in a relationship with the person) that it makes a good proxy to more specific dimensions that are more problematic for various reasons.

I suspect RQ would fail in a lot of ways - it's not simple and objective, so it'll hit the IQ problem - people who don't like it will claim measurement bias (they're right, and it would be worse if it mattered enough for rich people to game it).  I suspect it'd ALSO fail in predicting outcomes, if it's somehow excluding "innate" (including genetic and early-environmental) strengths.

Seems unlikely, both because I doubt the premise that an RO, whatever it looked like, would be significantly more or less trainable than IQ measurements (based on the fact that supposed measures of learnable knowledge like the SAT and GRE are so strongly correlated with IQ) and because if it had any measurement power it would, like the SAT and GRE, quickly become embroiled in politics due to disparities in outcomes between individuals and groups.

It feels like you're saying "dumb", and treating it like it's a single-dimension fixed value, the precise opposite of a uselessly narrow definition of "intelligent".   You're assuming that it doesn't change and shouldn't be used as information in your decisions.  Both of these beliefs are dumb.  The focus on incentive as the only reason to label someone is also dumb - that's only part of the reason for judging people's behavior and capability.

I don't need a god's-eye view to be frustrated by people who routinely make bad decisions.  Bad behavior is a mix of cognitive failure, world-modeling mistakes, poor impulse control, and likely other factors.  At least some of these factors DO seem to change over a person's lifetime.  And at least some of them are susceptible to intentional change if the person sees bad effects, including the judgement of peers and loved ones.

Labeling an agent "dumb" is useful BOTH to let that agent know that you've noticed their bad decisions AND to inform others (and remind yourself) that they are problematic on those decisions.  It's not sufficient, of course - one word never is.  The details and dimensions that this person causes risk or needs unusual support or behavioral guardrails is the important part of the judgement.  "dumb" is just a handle and a generalization.

It feels like you're saying "dumb", and treating it like it's a single-dimension fixed value, the precise opposite of a uselessly narrow definition of "intelligent".

That's a good point. I did notice this as I was writing the post. I think the post could be improved by going into more detail about the different types of "dumbness" but I didn't want to spend too much time on this post. I also think that while imperfect, it is still somewhat useful to speak generally about "dumbness", both in this context and other ones.

Labeling an agent "dumb" is useful BOTH to let that agent know that you've noticed their bad decisions AND to inform others (and remind yourself) that they are problematic on those decisions.

Yeah that's true. I probably should have discussed this in the post. But how often does it actually lead to behavior change? That seems like the relevant question to me. What do you think?

If it's someone like farmer Frank where you (socially) punishing them for being dumb isn't going to actually change their behavior, at least not in a way that outweighs the friction it causes, it seems like a situation where the costs outweigh the benefits.

But how often does it actually lead to behavior change?

It's too loose a category to quantify very well - I can't even estimate numerator nor denominator.  I do have some anecdotal examples, and plenty of media tales (remember: fiction is only evidence of popularity of idea, not actual events) of people who were motivated to improve by being called out on their dumbness.  And plenty of examples of very limited or no change.

So, more than "never", likely "some", probably not "usually".  This is confounded by the fact that it's very rarely the ONLY communication on the topic - it's combined with more specific complaints/advice.

That makes sense, I agree. So I guess it depends on the situation. 

Frank is dumb. You can reward him for being smart all you want, but that's just not gonna get him to take any community college classes. He is content with his life. It works for him. He enjoys his job, loves his family, owns his home, and just isn't interested in change.

He sure sounds smart. Or at least life-smart. He knows what he wants, he achieved it and he is happy. He may not get far in the Raven progressive matrices test, but this test does not affect his ability to achieve what he wants and probably even live in harmony with himself.

Sometimes people end up being content and happy due to luck though, and that is what I was going for with Frank.

Yeah. that is definitely not uncommon. But also, like with a dumb dog, it is easier to "end up being content and happy due to luck" when your aspirations and goals are moderate.

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