WHAT IS THE SECRET OF SUCCESS?
NEW RESEARCH FROM THE FIELD OF EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY CASTS DOUBT THAT THE SECRET OF SUCCESS IS WHAT OUR LEADERS THINK IT IS
DR RAJ PERSAUD
If you had a choice, would you rather be a good brain surgeon, or a good parent? Would you rather be a good corporate executive, or a good friend? These are the questions Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa poses in his new book The Intelligence Paradox.
Dr Kanazawa, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, has a new take on what it is that makes us successful in life. Psychologists have previously failed to properly disinter the factors that explain why some attain goals and other’s fail, why some become happy and others remain miserable, argues the Evolutionary Psychologist, because of a basic misconception at the heart of psychology over the fundamentals of human nature. Behavioural scientists have not distinguished between what demands modern life makes upon us which are ‘evolutionarily novel’ and which are closer to being part of human nature, or what we evolved to being good at naturally.
Satoshi argues that probably all subjects taught in school are more or less ‘evolutionarily novel’, which is precisely why we need to teach our youth how to do them. It clearly doesn’t come easy given the incessant struggle to impart academic subjects and skills, replete with exam failures, detentions and expulsions along the way. And when we finally graduate at the end of the education system, we heave a collective sigh of relief and declare, ‘never again’.
Yet we don’t seem need to teach pupils how to make friends. This is because, Satoshi argues, it’s part of human nature. We evolved to make friends because for an extended part of our evolutionary history it was what enabled survival. Having affiliations was what predicted continued existence despite predators and warring tribes in our distant past, rather than knowing algebra. Everybody then can make friends, everyone that is, contends Satoshi, except for the academically successful, who end up at the top of hierarchies and running our societies.
Our brains evolved the kinds of academic skills which modern societies values over all else, for specific reasons linked to our ancestral environments. Academic skills were indeed helpful when the unexpected happened in our evolutionary distant past, such as flash floods or droughts or new enemies or novel predicaments emerged rapidly. These non-recurrent problems happened just frequently enough in the ancestral environment, and had serious enough consequences for survival and reproduction, then any genetic mutation that allowed carriers to think and reason would have been selected for. But, Satoshi argues, academic skills were no more specially helpful back then, than the skill of making friends or being a good parent. Now modern society values these academic skills above all else, preserving the greatest rewards and status for those who are top of the class, when in fact this group may be less good at what Dr Kanazawa argues are all the most important things in life, such as friendship and parenting.
Kanazawa uses a famous psychological study of the most academically gifted to back up his argument. The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth tracks the lives of more than 5,000 individuals in the USA who have been identified as truly gifted, with an IQ score higher than 155 – when the national average is 100 and the average graduate scores 120. More than half of this elite group (51.7% of men and 54.3% of women) have earned a doctorate (Ph.D., M.D.), compared to the population baseline in the USA of 1%. More than a third of the men and about a fifth of the women earn more than $100,000 a year in 2003–2004 in their early 30s. Additionally, 17.8% of the men and 4.3% of the women have earned patents, compared to the population baseline in the US of 1%.
In stark contrast to their stellar successes in education and employment, this elite do not do very well in the ‘evolutionarily familiar’ domains of marriage and parenting, according to Satoshi. 64.9% of the men and 69.0% of the women remain childless at age 33, compared to the population baseline of 26.4% in the age group 30–34. The majority of these parents only have one child. As a result, the mean number of children is .61 for men and .44 for women, compared to the population baseline of 1.59 for women in the age group 30–34. Despite their extraordinarily high general intelligence, these men and women seem to be lagging behind everyone else in the evolutionarily familiar domains of marriage and parenting.
Dr Kanazawa argues that no particular advantage (and often disadvantages) accrue in such evolutionarily familiar domains as mating for the academically successful is illustrated by anecdotal as well as scientific evidence. He cites the following exchange between Stephen Hawking (University of Cambridge Lucasian Professor of Mathematics) and Larry King (TV Chat Show Host) when Hawking appeared on Larry King Live Weekend on Christmas Day 1999, the following exchange took place:
Larry King: What, Professor, puzzles you the most? What do
you think about the most?
Stephen Hawking: Women.
Larry King: Welcome aboard.
In his new book The Intelligence Paradox, Dr Satoshi Kanazawa marshals evidence that while the academically successful make better physicians, better astronauts, better scientists, and better violinists, this is precisely because all of these pursuits are evolutionarily novel. Yet this is also precisely why in the bigger scheme of things, Satoshi contends, these are all the unimportant things in life.
We are not designed by evolution to be physicians, astronauts, scientists, or violinists. The academically successful frequently fail or demonstrate no special advantage in the most important things in life. They do not make better friends, they do not make better spouses and partners, and they do not make better parents, precisely because these are things that our ancestors have done for hundreds of thousands of years on the African savannah – without algebra.
Raj Persaud is a Harley St Consultant Psychiatrist and Emeritus Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Economics and author/editor of several best selling books including ‘The Mind: A Users Guide’ published by Bantam Press. Satoshi Kanazawa’s new book The Intelligence Paradox is published by Wiley and Co.
Do you agree or disagree with these arguments from Evolutionary Psychology? Take part in a psychology experiment designed to test these theories by visiting http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/secretofsuccessexperiment or the Edinburgh Science Festival Website at http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/whats-on/categories/talk/the-secret-of-success and completing the web survey. Dr Raj Persaud will be exploring the results and the theories in a talk at the Festival on April 2nd at 8pm – to book tickets visit the festival booking page here http://www.sciencefestival.co.uk/whats-on/categories/talk/the-secret-of-success