Bryan Caplan  

How the Hive Mind Works

From the Vault: My 1983 Piece ... From Poverty to Prosperity<...
My colleague Garett Jones is working on a book called Hive Mind: Why Your Nation's IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own.  I thought about his project while reading Robert Gordon's article "Everyday Life as an Intelligence Test."  One of the many fascinating questions in this piece: What happens when you test the IQ of a team?
Consider an experiment by Laughlin and Johnson (1966) that induced the local equivalent of random pairing. College students were administered the high level Tern-ran Concept Mastery Test (Tern-ran, 1956) and then assigned to low, medium, and high ability groups according to their scores. Students were paired up systematically to represent every combination of the three ability levels and readministered the same test working together, but some members of each level were left to repeat the test alone. 

Working with lower ability partners led generally to score improvements, but the more able the partner the greater was the gain. For present purposes, the most telling finding was that medium and high ability individuals improved slightly more working alone the second time than working with low ability partners. As these were college students, and the test was a difficult one, the low group would have scored well above many persons in the general population. [emphasis mine]
Here's more on team dynamics, based on Schofield (1982):
Pupils preferred to exchange help with partners of similar achievement level, with whom they could reciprocate and who could reciprocate with them (p. 87). Poor students had little to offer as the brighter ones already knew the answers to easy problems, and so the poorer ones would often be ignored when seeking help from better students (p. 88). This left poor students to turn for help to one another (where they might well imbibe misinformation uncritically).  When help was offered to poor students by altruistic better students, the former often rejected it because they were embarrassed not to be able ever to reciprocate (pp. 89-90).
Gordon concludes:
Exchanges of direct, explicit help, not to mention true collaboration, are most likely to thrive between individuals unequal in g when they are separated by only small steps of IQ, so that gaps are not too big to permit adequate reciprocity. "I didn't believe in working with anyone who wasn't my equal," a senior lawyer states... The constraint would impose a positive correlation on individuals between their own intelligence and the intelligence of those from whom they are most likely to receive help on a regular basis, even if some correlation were not already present for social structural reasons. The constraint may, for example, help explain assortative mating for IQ, the average correlation of about .36-.43 between spouses...
Question for discussion: The research Gordon discusses seems to focus on cognitive barter.  What do comparative advantage and market exchange imply about the broader significance of these results?

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Troy Camplin writes:

Indeed, we see here a difference between trade and gift. Those who are in the position where they must always receive gifts end up after a while feeling shame, which leads to shame avoidance and, thus, avoiding those who could in fact most help them. So the question is: how do we help those who could most benefit from such gifts avoid feeling ashamed at receiving those gifts? THe key here is to try to avoid shame avoidance.

Les writes:

Troy Camplin writes: "how do we help those who could most benefit from such gifts avoid feeling ashamed at receiving those gifts?"

A better question is: "why do we help those who could most benefit from such gifts avoid feeling ashamed at receiving those gifts?"

He would cut down those of high ability in order to empower those of less ability. Why is this a good idea?

tom writes:

To me the interesting part is the last bit--that people of lower ability on the thing being tested would reject help. I'm a bad person, so I think back to the reports of Michelle Obama in college, and how she hated it. But even if you were not a bad person, it could fit with memories of high school.

Maybe a good question is when do people NOT follow the rule of 'like with like' and follow it more strongly the closer the relationship is?

The first exception is men and women, but we need huge regular doses of hormones to draw them together. And even then, like does strongly join like when deciding who can be tolerated for the long term.

The second exception is whenever different roles are a part of the relationship. Socially, for example, a pretty girl and less pretty ones in a clique, where they think they get her halo and she gets to be the leader. And in every relationship that requires a task to be completed, people who are useful in different ways toward getting the job done (the five personality factors plus intelligence). I'm thinking of the A-Team but there could be even better examples.

To think Hansonly or Millerly, in which type of relationship are status issues bigger? My quick guess would that that status issues are bigger between likes serving the same role than between differents in different roles. That could be the real reason that university professor disputes would be so bitter--not because the stakes are so low, as the saying goes, but because the contestants are so alike and put into a situation where they are seeing which dominates on the trait in which they are alike.

jc writes:

A simple answer to Troy's literal question is to employ the politics of envy: demonize the high performers and cultivate a "you owe me" attitude, leading the low performers to angrily demand help, as their natural right, and the high performers to capitulate. (This is obviously not where Troy was going. Still, it would be interesting to see how easy/difficult it is to induce this kind of culture in lab setting.)

As Les points out, the results of this approach might not be a good idea for anyone.

A better way to go about answering Troy's question is to adopt Tom's approach. (And I think that's what Bryan was asking us to do with his question.)

Floccina writes:

I think Troy is thinking more along the lines of:

Proverbs 15:2 "The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing..."

And not so much welfare. You know teach a man to fish.

Nick C. writes:

Les: "A better question is: "why do we help those who could most benefit from such gifts avoid feeling ashamed at receiving those gifts?"

He would cut down those of high ability in order to empower those of less ability. Why is this a good idea?"

I wouldn't think a student of high ability would necessarily be cut down by helping another with low ability. It's not as if he needs to "spend" a portion of his own intellectual capital to tutor a peer.

Regarding Troy's question, it seems to me that poorer students may feel less shame if they hire a tutor. While they can't really offer intellectual capital, they do have money (or beer) instead. Getting help from smarter students would become more like a mutually beneficial transaction than a charity case, so it can ease some of the stigma.

Another option is for them to "sit in" on discussions between smarter students, when possible. When I was in engineering school, they had a common lounge for the grad students with the TA offices partitioned to the side. Since at any point someone pretty much had to be there, the lounge ended up being a social hangout for the department. Whenever more than a couple people got together to tackle a concept, we'd take it up on the white board to the benefit (or annoyance) of anyone in the lounge. The poorer students were indirectly helped without the stigma of asking for charity, and the smarter students benefited because of the greater collaborative efficiency of the venue.

Of course at the end of the day there's only so much we can do to reach out to poor students. If they won't accept charity, pay for a tutor, or attend group study sessions outside of class, then maybe they just don't care enough. At some point the burden is on them to take an active interest in improving, or else be satisfied with their current marks.

tom writes:

To respond more directly to Bryan's question, I think the results have the following significance for comparative advantage and market exchange:

FOR NORMAL TASKS (building a house, a road, a franchised business):LITTLE EFFECT

The problem being solved was an IQ test. It probably didn't really test any of the five personality factors (i.e., didn't require planning, specialized knowledge, different skills). Most problems in real life are not like that.


To solve something hard that requires a Hi-Q, you should really get as many HI-Qs as you can on it, and count less on one genius to lead many lower-ability followers. Maybe some Hi-Q projects should be restructured to encourage more equality and less top-downedness (I'm thinking about the stories on Robert Gallo's AIDS research and his tyranny) despite the battles that would follow.

So maybe democracy/equality should be encouraged among Hi-Q types on Hi-Q projects, to stimulate the highly productive sharing of ideas among that group. (It would also suggest that there may be enormous losses when Hi-Qs in the same field conceal information from each other rather than cooperate, again as with AIDS research.)

But maybe stratification and concentration of power should be the rule for other jobs, with an effort made on not having too many Hi-Qs together, or too many of any personality type together. A lot of businesses already organize this way.

Nick C. writes:

"What do comparative advantage and market exchange imply about the broader significance of these results?"

I'm not an economist, so please bear with me, but it seems to me that barter and market exchange aren't substantially different in principle. I understand, of course, that the introduction of a trade medium (money) enables people to acquire goods or services from others even when they don't possess skills or assets valuable to the owners of the desired goods or services; in other words, a grocer would accept money in exchange for food from a bicycle mechanic, even though he doesn't own a bicycle in need of repair. I'm not disputing that market exchange is better than barter (for most cases, anyway).

What I'm getting at is that we may be able to extrapolate these results to market exchange and even human behavior. There seems to be a broader tendency to collaborate with colleagues of comparable contributory ability in the "real world" as well, even considering comparative advantage and market exchange. After graduation, some of my friends intentionally took jobs at less technically demanding engineering firms largely because they would be better able to contribute, even though they could become better--and more marketable--engineers by enduring a few years at a more capable firm. I'm sure there are examples in other industries as well. Essentially I'm saying that all this translates to less income and thus less purchasing power in exchange for seeking to collaborate with similarly skilled colleagues.

In effect, I tend to think that the difference between cognitive barter and market exchange is a matter of scope rather than principle. A smart math student might be willing to help a poor math student in exchange for money or help in psychology or music, for example. Markets do the same thing; people typically have to offer something of value in exchange for something that they value in return, and as in academics pure charity cases seem to be similarly rare.

Of course for me to offer a solution, I suppose I'd have to concede that this is a problem. Some people may prefer a low pressure way of life, and it's hard for me to fault them for that--especially since I'm guilty of the same thing compared to my old doctoral student friends!

ERIC writes:

It implies that it's a waste of time to give without receiving something in return. When there is no potential for a profitable exchange, no exchange takes place. Interesting how even when offered help the poor students turn it down. I don't know if I would!

Joey Donuts writes:

These propositions could be tested today in a systematic way by looking for help on various IRC channels. It's surprising to me how the different channels respond to help requests especially if they suspect your a NOOB. Some are still helpful. Some are downright insulting. Anyway some student looking for a dissertation topic might try looking at the irc groups.

Troy Camplin writes:

I'm not sure how anyone was able to read that I was proposing to "cut down" anyone of ability, or that in my question I was promoting a politics of envy. Anyone who has followed my comments on other threads here should know better of me. I think there is nothing that has created more evil on earth than the politics of envy. Resentment creates nothing but bad in the world. I want to avoid the creation of resentment, and certainly of envy. To propose that what I said has anything to do with cutting anyone down or promoting a politics of envy only avoids answering the question I proposed in a serious way. The problem is that when people feel shamed, they try to avoid those things that they feel shamed them. That's why people resent people who give "too big" a gift. That's why "secret Santa" pools always have a monetary limit. So, again, I ask: how to we resolve the core problem here, which is shame avoidance? Paying someone is certainly one way, but this is only one form of reciprocation.

Hal Varian writes:

I think that this is one of the reasons why microlending work as well as it does. Essentially, the system sets up good incentives to share information efficiently.

hacs writes:

The Bell Curve is one of the most overvalued books in recent times. An unscientific work wrote by a psychologist and a political scientist which has been refuted by evolutionary biologists and geneticists as well as many others social scientist as them. But among some economists it is a reference, even after all the scientific advances subsequent to that book.

Many empirical economists are inspired by a British philosophical point of view of the eighteenth century, but they are based on social science-like explanations about scientific issues beyond their knowledge. Economists, as well as doctors (medical schools are implementing evolutionary biology courses), should know better the characteristics of the source of its object of study of a fundamental and scientific viewpoint, not through regressions, an approach subject to various biases, from the formulation of the model until the adjustment of coefficients (although controls and instruments are used), as well as the choice of data (generalization of obtained conclusions from Ivy League samples are abundant). That method is a black-box approach on a completely unknown mechanism.

There is many modern bibliographical references for who is really interested on the subject.

tom writes:

One funny thing from the abstract of Gordon's 2002 article:

"The model is tested on and found to fit prevalences of juvenile delinquency, adult crime, single parenthood, HIV infection, poverty, belief in conspiracy rumors, and key opinions from polls about the O.J. Simpson trial and the earlier Tawana Brawley case."

OJ AND Tawana? I could see how those correlations could be less than 100% relevant.

hacs writes:

Now, from a personal point of view, I have never witnessed a weaker student or a less productive colleague abstaining from aid due to embarrassment, but the contrary.

When I am confronted with a more theoretical problem, I study others' solutions, but I prefer to invent my own solution, and this is my main criterion for working or not with somebody (that is, a strong inclination to creativity). Somebody could say that my approach is not as productive as other more pragmatic ways (for example, using existent solutions), but, at the end, I can really understand the subject (copying solutions does not give me the same sure).

In practice, it is very difficult to make a study group because the vast majority is of the pragmatical type.

I cannot see myself in the kind of research quoted above.

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