Are politicians dumber than the rest of us?

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Dear Cecil: Most politicians seem dumb as doorknobs and the current lot even more than usual. But are they really? Have there been any serious studies comparing politicians’ personality traits or intelligence to that of the common population? Knut Borge, Oslo, Norway


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Cecil replies:

Surely no discussion of dumb politicians can be complete without reference to dearly departed George W., who left behind not just a tanked economy and one or two intractable military misadventures but volumes worth of great lines — you’ll recall “Is our children learning?,” etc. Bush also memorably described looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and getting, quite romantically, “a sense of his soul.”

I bring it up because we’d need to give a lot of lawmakers some very thorough eye exams to even begin to answer your question. Are politicians dumb? Who the hell knows? I suspect you’d find that results vary, as with most folks, but that what expresses itself in politicians as apparent dumbness might often reflect a certain kind of savvy. Sure, we had a good laugh when Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor last February as evidence that global warming is a hoax — but keep in mind that Inhofe is well funded by the fossil-fuel industry, and represents a constituency notable for climate-change skepticism. You think he’s dumb? He’s too busy counting campaign money to care.

It’s important to consider not just politicians’ public statements, which may be pure theater, but the whole “fruit salad of their life,” as Ben Carson recently and so perfectly put it. And there’s another knock on your theory, Knut — Carson seemed like a blathering idiot during the debates, but the guy was a brilliant neurosurgeon by every account. He’s as good a demonstration as you’ll find of the theory of multiple intelligences, originated by Harvard professor Howard Gardner: Carson would seem to have what Gardner calls visual-spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences by the bushel, but far less of the verbal-linguistic kind. So:

  • Intelligence is a hazy, multifaceted construct that can be tracked in any number of ways.
  • There’s not exactly a surfeit of meaningful data on intelligence as regards politicians as a class.
  • Let’s not put too much stock in their public behavior, which can’t be assumed to reflect their actual beliefs.

Of course it’s still tempting to speculate. One guy who’s succumbed is psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, who in a 2006 study endeavored to estimate IQs for all American presidents, up to and including W. For most presidents Simonton worked from personality assessments by their biographers; he anonymized the data and submitted it to a panel of independent judges, using various analytical tools to validate the results. Now, let’s keep in mind that (a) to the extent IQ scoring is meaningful, it’s mainly as a diagnostic of intellectual or emotional impairment, not a system for ranking healthy people’s intelligence, and (b) the guy is essentially guessing what the presidents’ IQs were anyway.

That said: Simonton found Bush to be “definitely intelligent” — with an estimated IQ around 125, or “in the upper range of college graduates in raw intellect” — but below average relative to other presidents. Compared to all 20th-century presidents (and I’ll note I suggested as much in a 2001 column), “only Harding has a lower score.” The rest were markedly above the national average, which hovers around 100; twenty-eight presidents were given a “genius”-level score, typically defined as anything north of 130.

What else could one use as a proxy for brain power? Educational attainment obviously doesn’t equate to raw intelligence, but at the very least it seems like an OK thing for a politician to have some of. Modern American legislators do well by this standard: current members of Congress have pretty much all achieved bachelor’s degrees — 94 percent of representatives and 100 percent of senators, as compared to just about a third of the population at large. More than half of senators hold law degrees, 82 members of the House have MAs, etc.

But does this even matter? Scholars have historically assumed a link between political leaders’ education and their effectiveness, but in a paper last year in the Journal of Politics researchers looked at the track records of 20th-century U.S. congresspeople and found that the ones with college degrees didn’t have any more success — in terms of getting bills passed and holding onto their seats — than the ones without. “The idea that education is a marker of leader quality,” the authors concluded, “is far from the empirical regularity it is made out to be.”

You also asked about personality traits. Here I’ll point you toward a 2012 piece in the Atlantic that described certain people marked by “lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, and refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions.” Politicians, right? Well, the author was talking about psychopaths; one neuropsychologist quoted here identifies former British prime minister Tony Blair, for instance, as a perfectly “plausible psychopath.” By this estimation, far from being an impediment to a career in politics, psychopathy could in fact optimize one for it. But then I guess we already knew that.

Cecil Adams

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