The Genetics of Success

Warning: this post is not for egalitarians who believe that everyone is equally beautiful and talented or that everyone can become an Aristotle through immense self-effort. No, this post argues that our genetic differences result in different expected life outcomes.

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We are living in extremely interesting times. It seems that we have reached a tipping point in genomic research. We can now predict life outcomes based on genetic tests. Daniel Belsky from Duke University and his team of researchers have recently released a paper asserting that genetic tests can predict adult life outcomes. The magnitude of correlation between genomic tests and adult life outcomes is still modest, but the predictions will grow more accurate once we gain more knowledge about the genetic makeup of ‘success’. I believe that this is big news, since this is the first well-developed psychometric/genetic research I have read so far that proves that life success is too some extent related to our genetic makeup.

When Belsky et al looked at the genetic profiles and the people they studied, they found that people with higher polygenic scores did not only have greater educational attainments, but also had more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, more assets, greater upward social mobility, were more likable and friendly.

Main research findings

The main research findings can be summed up as follow:

  1. polygenic scores predicted adult economic outcomes even after accounting for educational attainments;
  2. genes and environments were correlated: Children with higher polygenic scores were born into better-off homes;
  3. children’s polygenic scores predicted their adult outcomes even when analyses accounted for their social-class origins; social-mobility analysis showed that children with higher polygenic scores were more upwardly mobile than children with lower scores;
  4. polygenic scores predicted behavior across the life course, from early acquisition of speech and reading skills through geographic mobility and mate choice and on to financial planning for retirement;
  5. polygenic-score associations were mediated by psychological characteristics, including intelligence, self-control, and interpersonal skill.

Belsky’s main research question

In 2013, Rietveld et al reported the first successful genome-wide association study (GWAS) of educational attainment. They analyzed millions of genetic variants in more than 100,000 individuals and found a genetic map that was related to people’s educational attainment. This genetic map could even explain differences in educational attainment between siblings in the same family.

The main research question that Belsky et al ask is: “do genetic discoveries for educational attainment predict outcomes beyond schooling?”

If so, what are the developmental and behavioral pathways that connect differences in DNA sequences with divergent life outcomes?

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Belsky’s research methodology

1,037 people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, were tracked through a 38-year assessment of their socioeconomic development. This study became known as ‘the Dunedin study’. The cohort represented the full range of socioeconomic status (SES).

The researchers derived polygenic scores from the approximately 2.3 million genotypes that according to Rietveld et al would make up the genetic predisposition to educational attainment. In addition, adult-attainment scores were derived from extensive analyses of Dunedin members’ life developments. See table 1 for developments that were tracked and the methods through which these developments were measured.

The researchers have for example measured SES, determined from the higher of either parent’s occupational status throughout the Dunedin Study members’ childhoods. Educational attainment was measured, looking at the highest obtained degree. Attainment beyond education were measured by members’ reports of occupation, income, assets, credit problems when they were 38 years old and from social welfare and credit-score records. Reading abilities, taken when the Dunedin Study members were 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 18 years old, were measured as well. What I find extremely interesting is the fact that the researchers have measured not only cognitive ability through picture vocabulary tests and IQ tests, but also certain personal traits like self-control, impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention and interpersonal skills.

More substantive research results

I will list all research results here:

  1. people with higher polygenic scores tended to achieve higher degrees;
  2. people with higher polygenic scores tended to be more socioeconomically successful, holding more prestigious occupations, earning higher incomes, having more assets, relying less on social-welfare benefits, having higher credit scores and reporting fewer difficulties paying expenses;
  3. children with higher polygenic scores tended to come from families with higher SES;
  4. children with higher polygenic scores tended to attain more regardless of whether they began life in a family of low SES or high SES. Children from low SES with high polygenic scores tended to have greater upward social mobility than their low SES peers with low polygenic scores;
  5. children with higher polygenic scores were more likely to talk earlier and quicker to begin communicating using sentences;
  6. children with higher polygenic scores were able to read at younger ages;
  7. adolescents with higher polygenic scores had higher educational aspirations at the age of 15;
  8. adolescents with higher polygenic scores performed better academically and outperformed their peers on standardized tests;
  9. people with higher polygenic scores were more likely to pursue occupational opportunities outside of New Zealand;
  10. people with higher polygenic scores were more financially planful;
  11. people with higher polygenic scores tended to find partners with higher socioeconomic attainments;
  12. people with higher polygenic scores were not more satisfied with their lives;
  13. people with higher polygenic scores performed better on IQ tests and showed more rapid cognitive development during childhood;
  14. people with higher polygenic scores had stronger noncognitive skills, such as self-control, friendliness, confidence, being cooperative and communicative;
  15. children with higher polygenic scores were no healthier than their peers.

Tough questions

Knowing that our genetic makeup partly determine our success in life, would it be ethical to screen embryos for genetic signs of success in life? In some cases, embryologists already check embryos for major diseases, but should we allow parents to select embryos with the greatest genetic odds of future success?

These are interesting questions that, I believe, we will be facing in the near future.

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Belsky et al – The genetics of success

Psychology Prof explains why there is no such thing as EQ

I came across this interesting Quora section where someone raised the question which one, a high EQ or IQ, is more beneficial in life. The question is based on the assumption that only your EQ or IQ is high with the other being average or below average.

A psychology professor named Jordan B. Peterson has quite remarkably answered the question asserting that “There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ” and calling it “a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient band-wagon, a corporate marketing scheme.” I found it interesting enough to repost his reply in full here:

There is no such thing as EQ. Let me repeat that: “There is NO SUCH THING AS EQ.” The idea was popularized by a journalist, Daniel Goleman, not a psychologist. You can’t just invent a trait. You have to define it and measure it and distinguish it from other traits and use it to predict the important ways that people vary.

EQ is not a psychometrically valid concept. Insofar as it is anything (which it isn’t) it’s the Big Five trait agreeableness, although this depends, as it shouldn’t, on which EQ measure is being used (they should all measure THE SAME THING). Agreeable people are compassionate and polite, but they can also be pushovers. Disagreeable people, on average (if they aren’t too disagreeable) make better managers, because they are straightforward, don’t avoid conflict and cannot be easily manipulated.

Let me say it again: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EQ. Scientifically, it’s a fraudulent concept, a fad, a convenient band-wagon, a corporate marketing scheme. (Here’s an early critique by Davies, M., Stankov, L. and Roberts, D. Emotional intelligence: in search of an elusive construct.  – PubMed – NCBI ; Here’s a conclusion reached by Harms and Crede, in an excellent article — comprehensive and well thought-through (2010): “Our searches of the literature revealed only six articles in  which  the  authors  either  explicitly examined the incremental validity of EI scores over measures of both cognitive ability and Big Five personality  traits in predicting either academic or work performance, or presented data in a manner that allowed examination of this issue. Not one of these six articles (Barchard,2003; Newsome, Day, & Catano, 2000;O’Connor & Little, 2003; Rode, Arthaud-Day, Mooney, Near, & Baldwin, 2008;Rode et al., 2007; Rossen & Kranzler,2009) showed a significant contribution for EI in the prediction of performance after controlling for both cognitive ability and the Big Five… For correlations involving the overall EI construct, EI explained almost no incremental variance in performance ([change in prediction] = .00. Findings were identical when considering only cases involving an ability-based measure of IE….” See:

Harms and Crede also comment: “…proofs of validity [for EI[ seem to come from measuring constructs that have existed for a long time and are simply being relabeled and recategorized. For example,one of the proposed measures of ESC,the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (Mikolajczak, Luminet, Leroy, & Roy,2007), makes use of measures of assertiveness, social competence, self-confidence,stress management, and impulsivity among other things. Most, if not all, of these constructs are firmly embedded in and well-accounted for by well-designed measures of personality traits such as the Hogan Personality Inventory (Hogan & Hogan, 1992)and the Multidimensional Personality Ques-tionnaire (Tellegen & Waller, 2008). The substantial relationships observed between these ESC and trait-based EI measures, and personality inventories, bears this out. It therefore appears that the predictive validity of ESC or EI measures may be accounted for in large part by the degree to which they assess subfacets of higher-order traits relevant to the outcomes being predicted. For example, Cherniss (2010) relates that two studies of self-discipline showed them to be significant predictors of academic performance and then criticizes Landy (2005) for not taking them into account in a review of studies of ‘‘social intelligence.’’ Given that self-control (or impulse control)is widely regarded as a major subfacet of conscientiousness (Roberts, Chernyshenko,Stark, & Goldberg, 2005) and that numerous studies have linked Conscientiousness with academic performance, that there is a link between a facet of Conscientiousness and academic performance is hardly news.”

IQ is a different story. It is the most well-validated concept in the social sciences, bar none. It is an excellent predictor of academic performance, creativity, ability to abstract, processing speed, learning ability and general life success.

There are other traits that are important to general success, including conscientiousness, which is an excellent predictor of grades, managerial and administrative ability, and life outcomes, on the more conservative side.

It should also be noted that IQ is five or more times as powerful a predictor as even good personality trait predictors such as conscientiousness. The true relationship between grades, for example, and IQ might be as high as r = .50 or even .60 (accounting for 25-36% of the variance in grades). Conscientiousness, however, probably tops out at around r = .30, and is more typically reported as r = .25 (say, 5 to 9% of the variance in grades). There is nothing that will provide you with a bigger advantage in life than a high IQ.  Nothing. To repeat it: NOTHING.

In fact, if you could choose to be born at the 95th percentile for wealth, or the 95th percentile for IQ, you would be more successful at age 40 as a consequence of the latter choice.

It might be objected that we cannot measure traits such as conscientiousness as well as we measure IQ, as we primarily rely on self or other-reports for the former. But no one has solved this problem. There are no “ability” tests for conscientiousness. I am speaking as someone who has tried to produce such tests for ten years, and failed (despite trying dozens of good ideas, with top students working on the problem). IQ is king. This is why academic psychologists almost never measure it. If you measure it along with your putatively “new” measure, IQ will kill your ambitions. For the career minded, this is a no go zone. So people prefer to talk about multiple intelligences and EQ, and all these things that do not exist. PERIOD.


By the way, there is also no such thing as “grit,” despite what Angela Duckworth says. Grit is conscientiousness, plain and simple (although probably more the industrious side than the orderly side). All Duckworth and her compatriots did was fail to notice that they had re-invented a very well documented phenomena, that already had a name (and, when they did notice it, failed to produce the appropriate mea culpas. Not one of psychology’s brighter moments). A physicists who “re-discovered” iron and named it melignite or something equivalent would be immediately revealed as ignorant or manipulative (or, more likely, as ignorant and manipulative), and then taunted out of the field. Duckworth? She received a MacArthur Genius grant for her trouble. That’s all as reprehensible as the self-esteem craze (self-esteem, by the way, is essentially .65 Big Five trait neuroticism (low) and .35 extraversion (high), with some accurate self-assessment of general life competence thrown in, for those who are a bit more self-aware). See

By the way, in case I haven’t made myself clear: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS EQ. OR GRIT. OR “SELF-ESTEEM.”

It’s crooked psychology. Reminiscent of all the recent upheaval in the social psychology subfield: Final Report: Stapel Affair Points to Bigger Problems in Social Psychology

Average IQ per College Major

This is a follow-up post on Herrnstein & Murray’s (1994) finding that the average IQ of college students in 1990 is 113. What I would like to do in this post is to break down the average college student IQ into their majors as of 2014. Doing so, one will find that the average IQ of students among majors can differ substantially. I will refer to the Educational Testing Services (ETS) in order to find the average IQ per college major. The ETS is an educational testing and assessment organization which develops and administers such standardized tests as the SAT, GRE, and TOEFL. They have calculated the average IQ per major based on their SAT data set.

Why would it be valid to infer IQ scores from the SAT scores? According to Frey & Detterman (2004), there is a strong correlation between SAT scores and the general intelligence factor (g) which IQ tests attempt to measure. The correlation they found was 0.82. This led to their conclusion that “the SAT is mainly a test of g” (Frey & Detterman, 2004, p. 1). You can find the correlation illustrated in the following graph (click on it to enlarge the graph):

SAT to IQ Correlation

So what are the results that the ETS came up with? The majors that have the five highest average IQ scores are (ranked from high to low):

  • Physics & Astronomy (133)
  • Mathematical Sciences (130)
  • Philosophy (129)
    Materials Engineering (129)
  • Economics (128)
    Chemical Engineering (128)
    Other Engineering (128)
  • Mechanical Engineering (126)

The majors with the five lowest average IQ scores are (again ranked from high to low):

  • Administration (107)
  • Home Economics (106)
    Special (106)
  • Student Counseling (105)
  • Early Childhood (104)
  • Social Work (103)

I honestly have no idea what falls under ‘Other Engineering’ or what ‘Special’ is.

What I find truly astonishing in the ETS data set is that it would make the average college student within one of the 5 highest IQ scoring majors (nearly) acceptable for Mensa – a high IQ organization that only accepts people within the highest 2 percentiles (IQ of around 132). What may strike some people as surprising is the high score for Economics. However, anyone who has studied Economics would know how math-laden the major is and that it in that sense quite resembles such majors as Physics, Mathematics, Engineering etc. We can find this back in the relatively high Quantitative SAT score for Economics (706) compared to Physics & Astronomy (736), Mathematical Sciences (733), Materials Engineering (727), Philosophy (638), and Business Administration & Management (561).

As someone who holds a BBA in International Management, I find it quite interesting to see that Business Administration & Management scores relatively low in the spectrum of majors (IQ = 111). However, if I could speak from my own experience (and I understand that I have to be careful here for not hurting anyone’s feelings) of having been around Philosophy and Economics majors, it actually reflects very well how I feel about the overall intelligence of Management students compared to those from Philosophy and Economics.

Click here to see the full list of average IQ per college major.


Educational Testing Services (2014, January 7). IQ Estimates by College Major. Retrieved from

Frey, M.C., & Detterman, D.K. (2004). Scholastic Assessment or g? The Relationship Between the Scholastic Assessment Test and General Cognitive Ability. Retrieved from