UMN study suggests interpersonal success is related to intelligence, not altruism

Researchers found a higher IQ may get people further than being a team player.

Wesley Hortenbach

Intelligence may get people farther than altruism in situations involving cooperation, according to a new study published this month from the University of Minnesota.

Researchers used games to assess traits that may contribute to a socially cohesive, cooperative society, and found that people with higher IQs were more cooperative, possibly as part of long-term strategies. These findings could explain why high-achievers are successful, researchers say.

The researchers conducted the study with four games, including Prisoner’s Dilemma and Battle of the Sexes, which are often used in game theory – a field of science that examines logical decision making in humans.

Cooperation is key in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but there is incentive for participants to deceive each other to win. In the Battle of the Sexes, participants can only succeed by working together.

The study examines two schools of thought about human nature: one that says that people are irrational, emotional and altruistic — and reliant on others to achieve success as a result — and another that says people are selfish in pursuing their interests, said Aldo Rustichini, study author and University economics professor.

Intelligent individuals were both more cooperative and more successful in these games, which Rustichini said could be a result of the ability to process information better and learn from experience more efficiently. He said this supports the second viewpoint on human nature.

These findings could have real-life applications in the workplace, where it’s likely that intelligent people who see the bigger picture and work cooperatively will ultimately be promoted and financially rewarded, Rustichini said.

Recently, some private-sector organizations have been studying these traits in employees and potential hires, said Zack W. Almquist, assistant professor of sociology and statistics.

“For example, Google has looked into their own hiring practices and the resultant success of who they hire, and people who are better at ‘emotional intelligence’ kind of areas tend to get promoted faster,” he said.

Since intelligent people were successful in cooperating and achieving goals, Rustichini said the study addresses the broader question: “Can we trust people to look after their own interest?” He said this could impact welfare distribution, if intelligence determines someone’s ability to reach their goals.

Others say people should be cautious in applying these findings directly to real-life situations and experiences.

“Tasks like those studied here reflect a certain type of cooperation,” said Daniel Forbes, associate professor  in the University’s Department of Strategic Management & Entrepreneurship. “They have some relevance to everyday behavior, and they can inform our understanding of when and how people exhibit cooperation in larger groups, such as societies. That said, work environments are complex and varied, and not all work behaviors can be reduced to interactions of this kind.”

Almquist said it’s important to remember that studying social behavior is complex and often requires simplifying social structures.

“It is incredibly hard to [simplify] cognitive and social structures down to something that is both useful and informative,” Almquist said.