Wrestling with Cognitive Inequality
with Jordan Peterson
When we speak of inequality in the United States, we’re typically talking about economic inequality, whether it be disparities in wealth or differences among individuals in the opportunity to acquire wealth. People have various theories about how to ameliorate economic inequality, from taxing the rich and redistributing wealth to designing programs with the right incentives that give people the opportunity and the motivation to earn more money for themselves. Whatever one's preferred policy, there will always be some inequality in any free society. But allowing it to run rampant poses a great risk to political and social stability. So, there will always be a need to address the problem in some way.
Still, there are certain kinds of inequality that no tax, program, or social policy will eliminate. For instance, what should we do about people who simply lack the cognitive ability to compete in our economy? What do we do with people whose intellectual abilities are so limited that employers are reluctant to hire them, so finding them any steady work is all but impossible? The sad fact of the matter is that such people exist in any society. So, you would think this problem would fall under the remit of a liberal politics that views (or claims to view) helping the disadvantaged as a moral imperative. But, when the issue has to do with human intelligence—with IQ—we hear very little from anyone, left or right, about how best to help those with cognitive disadvantages find a dignified way to live and work.
That's because IQ has become so taboo that even admitting to the reality of innate and meaningful differences in intellectual capacity among human beings can get one in trouble. (Note well: I am not talking here about racial differences or about genetics. I am talking about the differences that clearly exist among individuals in mental ability.) Luckily, not everyone is afraid of trouble. In the following excerpt from my recent appearance on Jordan Peterson’s podcast, Jordan outlines this difficult problem with remarkable empathy. The first step to finding a solution to the problem is talking about it, which we do below.
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GLENN LOURY: You were saying something I thought interesting a moment ago about how even a right-winger ought to be able to see that inequality, unrestrained, could be dangerous to the stable social order, because the losers are going to end up having a say one way or the other at the end of the day. And you better watch out, because if they don't have a stake in the system and they're feeling aggrieved and without status and dignity, they may act out in ways that are harmful to others.
JORDAN PETERSON: Oh, they will. Especially if they're young men. Absolutely they will. Absolutely they will. And that is definitely dangerous. And so, you know, partly we've tried to solve that, so to speak, we in the West, by trying to ensure something like equality of opportunity across a wide range of games. That's not a bad sort of meta-solution. It's like, well, we know that there's going to be wild disparities in outcome, and we can't really do anything about that. But maybe we can give people something approximating an equal shot at winning some game. And that would be better for everyone, too, because then we can harness their creative resources. It isn't obvious to me that there is a better solution. I don't know what a better solution could be.
What does that mean in a world where the people who have engineering degrees or got to law school or got a good education and are connected are making six figures and living comfortably, and someone who dropped out of high school is working for $30,000 a year and just barely getting by. What is that latter guy's venue where he or she can feel like they're winning the game?
Well, I think it depends to some degree on each individual. I mean, you can find status and meaning in your family, you have your pursuits outside of your work. I'm not saying that money isn't a good singular marker of relative status. It's probably the best singular marker there is. But it's not the only one.
There are diverse places you can attain status. You can be poor and dignified. You've certainly met people like that. You can be poor and admired within your family. You can be poor and have decent or outstanding character, for that matter. That's not exactly a domain that's regulated socially like the economic domain. But it's not nothing. By the same token, you can sacrifice a lot of those things to economic pursuit, and then you'll have lots of money, but, man, your life sucks in 50 different ways. So I don't know if that's a sufficient solution, but it's not nothing.
But this is not counseling laissez-faire, if I understand it. It's not saying the government should just withdraw and let the chips fall where they may. It could be advocating for a policy of some kind of, you know, everybody needs work that's meaningful. Everybody needs a sense of security, that they're not going to get sick and not be able to pay the bill, or they're not going to get old and not know where the next meal is coming from. Let's try to guarantee to extent that we can. We know the world's not perfect, and we may not be able to solve all these problems. But let's try to make sure that there's decent housing for someone so they don't have to sleep under a bridge, et cetera, et cetera. And then we can let the chips fall where they may.
Yeah, well, it seems to me that societies like the US, to some degree, but more specifically I would say the Scandinavian countries and probably Canada would more or less fall into that ballpark. “Fall into a ballpark” is a pretty bad metaphor. But that's kind of what those democratic socialist countries have established.
Now, it seems to be easier to do that in a smaller country that's more homogenous in its ethnic and racial grouping. And maybe also, technically, it's easier with a smaller population. The US is so damn big. It gets very complicated to try to do the same thing that those smaller polities have managed. And then, of course, you might think of something like a guaranteed income.
Let me ask you something about that. Maybe it'll bolster the idea. So when I was a clinician, I worked with a lot of people who were impaired in their cognitive ability. So they probably had IQs around 80 or lower. If you have cognitive ability at that range, it would be hard for you to master something like folding a letter to get it into an envelope. And that's way harder than you think, because you have to fold it exactly in thirds. You can't be out by more than about an eighth of an inch. And so I had one client, I probably trained him for 30 hours to do that well enough so that the letters would go through an automated machine so that he could keep his volunteer job.
Anyways, the US military has been doing cognitive testing since World War I about. And they determined—I don't remember when, and this is part of American legislation—that you cannot be inducted into the armed forces if you have an IQ, I think, less than 80. And the reason they determined that is because they couldn't find any military job of any sort that someone who is that cognitively impaired could manage proficiently. That's a killer issue because it's not like the military isn't highly desirous of pulling people in, especially from, say, the working class. So they were motivated to find the opposite. And that's like ten percent of the population.
We have a problem, and no one will face this, as far as I can tell, liberals or conservatives. Ten percent of the population can't really function in a complex cognitive environment, and that's what we're producing for everyone to live in. We can't have a conversation about that, because you know, the liberal types think everyone can be trained to do anything, which is complete bloody rubbish. And the conservatives think, well, if you just buckle down and work, away you go. And there's some truth in that, because conscientiousness does predict long-term economic success. But that doesn't deal with this other issue at all. It's ten percent of the population.
Ten percent of the population are so impaired in terms of their cognitive functioning that there's no useful work for them.
In the military. You can take that for what it's worth.
Are we taking it beyond the military?
Well, the reason I think the military example is so compelling is for two reasons. America in particular has used the military as a means of social mobility. Because it moves people from the working class upward. And that's been a conscious policy decision, in part. So there's that. But the other part is, you know, often the military is pretty damn hungry for people. And so if they've decided that, well, this doesn't work, it's hard to see ... I buy it, and that's partly because I know how much intellectual variability there is between people. It's stunning and terrifying at the same time. It's not a positive thing. It's really harsh.
I'm just resisting this idea that we can't find anything for them to do.
You remember The Bell Curve?
Who could not remember The Bell Curve?
Yeah. I was at Harvard when that came out, and Herrnstein was still a professor there. So I only want to talk about a little bit of it. I read The Bell Curve a couple of times, and one of the things Herrnstein and Murray said in that book that really stuck in my mind is that academic types like you and me, we virtually never encounter anyone in the lower 50th percentile of the cognitive distribution. When we think an undergraduate's dim, they have an IQ of 110, and that's like 80th percentile. And so you get blinded as you move up especially the academic ladder. You get blinded to the fifteen percent of the cognitive distribution, because those people are not in your purview. They're not in your circle.
Okay, I'll take that point. I can't use my personal experience. But what I'm chafing at is that, okay, I'm wearing glasses because I don't see very well without them. And I'm undoubtedly in the distribution of visual acuity in the bottom, I don't know, ten, fifteen percent. But when I put on a pair of glasses, I am able to function. What I'm missing here is a consideration of whether or not we can't adapt our institutions, productivity, or human service, or education or whatever, so as to meet this minimum requirement, which is taking everybody or almost everybody and giving them something to do.
Well, that needs to be done. And look, I want to add a couple of things to this. In the IQ literature—because you might think, well, that's biology and it's immutable. No, not exactly. The Flynn effect has shown that, over the last hundred years, IQ on average has been rising. And a huge part of that is probably better nutrition in the lower quartile of the population. So that made a huge difference. People got smarter because they weren't starving, essentially. They weren't malnourished. So it's not like this is exactly unremediable.
But the distribution doesn't seem to change much. It doesn't pack tighter into the middle. You still have the problem that some people are extremely smart and fast and some people aren't. It's a very, very hard problem to solve. I'm not saying that we shouldn't solve it and that we shouldn't pay some attention to the people who are struggling at the bottom. We absolutely should. But it isn't obvious how to do it.
This guy I worked with, like I said, he probably had an IQ maybe something around 80, I would have estimated. And I tried to find him a job. Now, it was really hard. He had a volunteer job in a bike shop for awhile, and it was a bike-book shop, a real small enterprise. He could sort of put books in the shelf, although he couldn't sequence them very well. And then that place couldn't pay him. So then I got him a volunteer job at a charity, and he couldn't do it well enough. They were going to fire him. I went and talked to the director of the charity. I said, you can't fire this guy because it's going to kill him. It's like, think about this. He's 40, he's got a volunteer job at a charity, and he's going to get fired. How the hell do you recover from that?
Now, he quit two months later anyways, and then he got a job with someone who trained dogs, and that worked out just fine. But you get my point. It was virtually impossible to find him a niche. And I tried with his mother, who was extraordinarily devoted to him in a very positive way. We tried for three years to slot him in somewhere, and it was virtually impossible.
So are you thinking that our homeless shelters and the prisons of the country and so on are basically populated by people such as this, who are unable to get their foot on the bottom wrung?
No, I wouldn't. The evidence for a relationship between IQ and criminality, that's not very strong. So I wouldn't say that in relationship to incarceration. I would say it's more likely in homelessness and that sort of thing. That's more likely. Where people fall out of the economy because there isn't anything they can find that will pay them a wage that will enable them to live. But the IQ relationship with criminality isn't very high.
There, isn't a single phenomenon documented in the social sciences that we know more about than the psychometrics of cognitive ability. If you throw that out, you throw everything else out. Because the people who established the psychometrics of intelligence also established all the statistical techniques that all social scientists use to assess and evaluate their data. You just don't get to throw it out. And that's also unfortunate, because it's a dismal literature in many ways, because the differential between people is so unbelievably extreme. And it matters.