Sunday, January 3, 2021

The mental qualities that make a society workable


A questionnaire survey found very low levels of altruism in Czechs and very high levels in Moroccans, Egyptians, and Bangladeshis. Do these results show differences in actual behavior or differences in socially desired response? (GPS 2020)


Emil Kirkegaard and Anatoly Karlin have written a paper on the relative importance of intelligence versus other mental traits in determining national well-being. Their conclusion? Intelligence contributes a lot more to national well-being than do time preference, reciprocity, altruism, and trust.


We find that overall, national IQ is a better predictor of outcomes than (low) time preference as well as the five other non-cognitive traits measured by the Global Preference Survey (risk-taking, positive reciprocity, negative reciprocity, altruism, and trust). We find this result across hundreds of regression models that include variation in the inclusion of controls, different measures of time preference, and different outcomes. Thus, our results appear quite robust. Our results do show some evidence of time preference's positive validity, but it is fairly marginal, sometimes having a small p value in one model but not in the next. (Kirkegaard and Karlin 2020)


The two authors especially focus on time preference, i.e., the willingness to defer gratification in exchange for long-term gains. While acknowledging previous studies, which show that time preference has a strong effect on national well-being, they argue that this effect is only apparent. If a society has low time preference (i.e., a strong orientation toward the future), it almost always has a high mean IQ. So the relationship between national well-being and time preference is largely spurious.


If true, this is a significant finding. But is it true?


I see one big problem: the paper compares datasets with very different levels of error. Intelligence was measured by IQ tests under controlled conditions. On an IQ test you cannot make yourself seem more intelligent than you really are, unless someone has provided you with the right answers.


This is not the case with the method for measuring the other mental traits: a questionnaire, on which the "right answer" is whatever the respondent chooses to write down. The difference between the two methods is thus the difference between direct measurement and self-report. The level of error is much higher with the latter, and this difference can explain the findings by Kirkegaard and Karlin, specifically why national well-being correlates more with intelligence than with time preference:


The median ß across the indicators was 0.11 for time preference but 0.39 for national IQ. We replicated these results using six economic indicators, again with similar results: median ßs of 0.15 and 0.52 for time preference and national IQ, respectively. Across all our results, we found that national IQ has 2-4 times the predictive validity of time preference.


What will happen to the same correlations if intelligence is measured by a questionnaire? Let's survey a thousand people and ask them: "How smart do you think you are?" The result will correlate with their performance on an IQ test, but far from perfectly. So the correlation between self-reported intelligence and national well-being will be lower than the correlation between IQ and national well-being. Instead of getting the correlation of 0.39 that Emil and Anatoly found, we now have something closer to 0.11, i.e., the correlation they found between time preference and national well-being.


The problems with questionnaire data are especially apparent if we look at the results of the Global Preference Survey for altruism (see map at the top of this post). We see considerable differences even between neighboring countries that are culturally similar. For some reason, Czechs are at the low end of human variation in altruism, whereas Moroccans, Egyptians, and Bangladeshis are at the high end.


What’s going on here? The results are based on the following two questions of the Global Preference Survey:


1. (Hypothetical situation:) Imagine the following situation: Today you unexpectedly received 1,000 Euro. How much of this amount would you donate to a good cause? (Values between 0 and 1000 are allowed.)


2. (Willingness to act:) How willing are you to give to good causes without expecting anything in return? (Falk et al. 2016, p. 15)


The first problem is that the respondents will answer the above questions in a way that is viewed favorably by others and by their own conscience. This is called “social desirability bias,” and it’s stronger in a society with a high level of religious belief, like Morocco, than in one with a low level, like the Czech Republic.


Second problem: the term “good cause” has different connotations in different places. In the Western world, it generally refers to a non-religious organization that may endorse controversial views on political or social issues. As a result, many Westerners have mixed feelings about donating to “good” causes. This is not the case in the Muslim world, where “good causes” are explicitly Islamic or at least compliant with Islamic teachings. There is a similar problem with the term “donate.” It usually means the act of giving money to an organization, whereas the corresponding word in another language may simply mean “give.”


I wrote to Emil Kirkegaard about my criticisms:


In my opinion, you're comparing apples and oranges. Cognitive ability is difficult to fake on an IQ test - unless somebody has provided the participant with the right answers. On a questionnaire, anyone can give the "right" answer. It's entirely self-report. It's like measuring intelligence by asking people how smart they think they are.


His reply:


Your stance on this seems to imply you are unhappy with any kind of comparison of self-rated data vs. objectively scored cognitive data. One difficulty for you here is that people can also cheat on cognitive tests, namely by scoring low on purpose. Furthermore, while you may disapprove, such comparisons are the norm everywhere. I don't know any other person who refuses to do this comparison. There are also other-rated personality data, and these show even more validity than self-rate ones.  There is a lot of research on faking good on personality tests, generally showing that subjects are not very good at this, presumably owing to lack of understanding of how the tests work.


I checked out the link he provided. This is what I found:


Self-rating measures of personality suffer from not just regular, random measurement error, but also have systematic measurement error (bias): people are not able to rate their own personality as well as other people who know them can. They introduce self-rating method variance into the data, and this variance is not so heritable. There is a twin study that used other-ratings of personality and when they used them or combined them with self-ratings, the heritabilities went up:


So with self-report they found H 42-56%, mean = 51%. Other-report: 57-81, mean = 66%, combined: 66-79, mean = 71%. (I used the AE models' results when possible.) In fact, these analyses did not correct for regular measurement error either, so the heritabilities are higher still according to these data, likely into the 80%s area. This is the same territory as cognitive ability. (Kirkegaard 2017)



Parting thoughts


Emil and Anatoly are right when they argue that intelligence is confounded with other mental traits. If, on average, a human population is high in intelligence, it is almost always low in time preference and high in altruism. This doesn't mean, however, that the latter are secondary expressions of intelligence. Many individuals are high in intelligence but low in altruism, sometimes pathologically low. They're called "sociopaths."


Few, if any, populations are both sociopathic and highly intelligent because such a combination can succeed only at the level of individuals, and not at the level of an entire population. The same pressures of selection that increase the mean intelligence of a population will also increase the average level of altruism and the average future time orientation. Consequently, all of these traits correlate with each other at the population level.


Will we ever be able to parcel out the relative importance of each mental trait in determining national well-being? In others words, will we ever find out how much of national well-being is due to intelligence, how much to time preference, and how much to altruism?


Not for a while. First, because these traits correlate with each other at the population level, it would be difficult to separate them and measure the relative importance of each one. They’re confounded. Second, they probably interact with each other. Altruism, for instance, is not a successful group strategy unless other mental or behavioral mechanisms are in place, in particular mechanisms to exclude non-altruists, i.e., the “free rider problem.” Intelligence, likewise, does not exist in a vacuum.





Falk, A., A. Becker, T. Dohmen, B. Enke, D. Huffman, and U. Sunde. (2016). Online Appendix: Global Evidence on Economic Preferences.

Global Preferences Survey (2020).  

Kirkegaard, E.O.W. (2017). Getting personality right. Clear Language, Clear Mind.


Kirkegaard, E.O.W., and A. Karlin. (2020). National Intelligence Is More Important for Explaining Country Well-Being than Time Preference and Other Measured Non-Cognitive Traits. Mankind Quarterly 61(2): 339-370.



Sean said...

Michel Rouzic said...

"people can also cheat on cognitive tests, namely by scoring low on purpose"
That's a rather awful objection to make. I refuse to believe that people scoring low on cognitive tests on purpose would ever be statistically relevant. People like to make themselves look good, so unless there's an overriding interest (like scoring low on an army test to seem too dumb to draft, as many suspect Muhammad Ali did) they have no reason to score low on purpose, all want to score as high as possible. So there's generally no downward IQ bias to expect from people cheating, whereas there's a very obvious and pervasive bias in self-reporting desirable social qualities.

ChristopherDT said...

I feel I would be laughed out of the room if I tried to use a questionnaire to prove anything about a psychological trait. Revealed-preference is the only way to get accurate information about human attitudes and temperament.