Modern societies are grounded in pyramidal models, where a tiny portion of the population plays leading roles and the remaining occupy subordinated positions. One of the major ways to maintain such a hierarchy is by adopting systems of comparison to hire personnel or to evaluate students. This approach does not seem to cultivate unique talents. What would happen if we could reconstruct a society in which spontaneous inclinations and human subjectivity are directly brought into play?
In 2009, Heiner Rindermann and colleagues published an article (1) that aimed at answering the challenging question:
“Is it true, that smart fractions [of a population] are more relevant for important indicators of societal development like wealth and democracy or scientific and technological progress?” (1)
In this study, the smart fraction is defined in terms of IQ (Intelligent Quotient) as the “upper” 5% of the population, assumed to have an IQ of around 125 or higher. Conversely, the non-smart fraction is equal to the “lower” 5% of population, assumed to have an IQ of around 75 or lower.
Using comparative analysis between different countries, Heiner Rindermann and colleagues proposed that the intellectual ability of the smart fraction – measured in terms of wealth, intellectual excellence and certain societal parameters – had a greater impact on national economic growth than the ability of the average or of the non-smart fraction.
In the human dimension we live in, such a statement should not surprise us. Smart people tend to make a fruitful use of their intellect. They are curious, and receive high education. This helps them to find high-profile jobs, which are usually paid more. Finally, they end up holding prestigious and influential positions in society.
I will not deny that differences in cognitive abilities exist among the population. But rather, in the following paragraphs I would like to highlight the idea that the way we currently perceive and categorize intelligence – the aforementioned scientific work is an example of this concept – heavily depends on how society is structured.
Modern societies rely on hierarchical organizations (2), in which very few people occupy leadership positions, while the rest of population is progressively subordinated at lower levels. The hierarchy is established and well maintained by the employment of systems of comparison – and therefore competition – between individuals. Among many others, cognitive tests are reliable tools to sustain such systems. These tests show a peculiar aspect: being standardized, they are based on pre-defined categories in which stereotyped human skills must fall. In a hierarchical context, this is an advantage when – for instance – a company aims at hiring new personnel: all candidates go through the same procedure, their performances are compared and only those totalizing the highest scores are eventually selected. In this respect, candidates are always competing with one another for the access to fixed, pre-established working positions. A similar situation applies to schools, where the selection works through a common grading system that classifies scholars in rankings.
Now, the core of this approach focuses on repetitive patterns among individuals rather than on variabilities between them. Unique, unrepeatable features concerning single individuals are generally ignored.
In fact, the hierarchy shows a stable and immutable structure, which continuously demands new individuals to fill pre-determined positions located at different levels of the pyramid: this is the drawback of trying to fit people into categories and not categories into people.
However, if we could overturn the paradigm, we would visualize every individual as an unrepeatable category. Each individual – very early in their life – shows a distinguishable and genuine inclination. In a hypothetical world where every human activity is socially and economically relevant, every person would naturally choose the job that suits them best. This job would represent the perfect expression of individual talent and potentially the best contribution of each individual to society.
To phrase it with Jack London’s words taken from his book The Cruise of the Snark (3):
“Our friends cannot understand why we make this voyage. They shudder, and moan, and raise their hands. No amount of explanation can make them comprehend that we are moving along the line of least resistance; that it is easier for us to go down to the sea in a small ship than to remain on dry land, just as it is easier for them to remain on dry land than to go down to the sea in the small ship.”
In this scenario, the very definition of intelligence loses strength. If we think about it, in the absence of cognitive tests or other comparative analyses, we spontaneously tend to consider brilliant anyone who simply shows a peculiar ability in a certain discipline. We happen to admire Mozart’s or Van Gogh’s artistic marvels and call them “genius”. But we have no clear proof about the status of their cognitive abilities, other than considering Van Gogh’s psychosis.
But let us play a little mental game too. On the one side, we have a surgeon; on the other side, we have a carpenter. Who do you think has accomplished more and is living a happier life? In the absence of further evidence, I would guess that our spontaneous answer would be the surgeon (This is the way we commonly make decisions based on perceived probabilities. Read “Of heuristics and yetis” to get more insights on the matter). Now we add some information. Let’s say the carpenter loves his job, and most of the people living in his neighbourhood choose him when they need a service. No one really feels the need to know anything more about his personal life: the carpenter is respected because of his talent. And what about the surgeon? He is working in a very competitive environment. He only makes routine surgeries, because he is not talented enough. Nevertheless, he is regularly hired by a renowned hospital and well-paid.
What do we think now? Although likely less educated than the surgeon, the carpenter is perceived as a brilliant person. The distinguished excellence he brings into play every day of his life is potent enough to give a very solid and appreciable picture of him. His uniqueness successfully masks any other aspect of his personality. Again, this is exactly what happens when we read about Mozart or Van Gogh in textbooks. On the other side, given his position, the surgeon might be accused of laziness or incompetence, strong judgements that severely impair the way he is perceived among his colleagues.
The core of this argument is very simple: while society largely benefits from the carpenter’s uniqueness, giving him a chance to express his talent and to live a happy life, the same cannot be said about the surgeon, whose existence is severely frustrated and his contribution to societal development limited.
When properly trained and supported, every human being is capable of expressing themselves at their best. In this ideal situation, society would benefit from the highest contribution everybody could give, and at the same time each individual would fulfil their existence and pursue their desire for self-realization.
Unfortunately, the current civilization lacks this vision. In order to strive for this kind of sociological revolution, countries should rethink their hierarchical systems and place human subjectivity in the spotlight. The whole economic system – as of today – should be reinvented, allocating huge financial support to personalize working opportunities.
However, different sociological signs are now pointing in the opposite direction: the introduction of binary tests in educational contexts, a progressive automation of selection procedures, the acquisition of big data to predict common and repetitive behavioural patterns. Nowadays, the main economic engine comes from massification instead of diversification in terms of human interests, skills and inclinations.
Considering what has been discussed so far, is human subjectivity really going to disappear? I believe it won’t.
Massification is not based on total annihilation of individual peculiarities, but rather on the specific selection of common skills. On this basis, individual uniqueness is not gone for good. It is just buried under our systems of comparison and competitive selection.
As unrepeatable human beings, we should start to reclaim our dignity and live the time left in our life according to its dictates.
- Rindermann, H., Sailer M., and Thompson, J. “The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development”, Talent Development & Excellence, 2009.
- Koski, J., Xie, H., Holson I.R. “Understanding Social Hierarchies: The Neural and Psychological Foundations of Status Perception”, Soc. Neurosci. 2015.
- London, J., “The cruise of the snark”, 1911.