What people value and what they say they value

I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this, but I’ve always liked it: the movies at the top of your Netflix queue are who you are, and the movies at the bottom are who you want to be. (Do you feel the same bit of “poser shame” that I felt when I first read that?)

It’s not at all novel to observe that what people value and what they say they value frequently diverge. This observation holds for just about every kind of person, I believe. (No, it’s not just women when they talk about the type of guy they say they want and the type they date!). One of the traits I think people mostly commonly lie about admiring is non-conformity. Most people profess a great love for non-conformity and non-conformists, and such professions almost always put my skepticism on high alert. However, as much as I might want to put such claims to the test when I meet them in casual conversation, it’s often hard to adduce strong evidence that any given person really prefers conformity. I’ve usually as much reason to suspect the curmudgeon that apparently lives deep inside of me of knee-jerk incredulity.

However, one claim that I think I can convincingly argue is an instance of this misrepresentation is that of hiring managers at companies that recruit really smart people, software and trading companies, for example. Such companies often cull the pack of applicants with brainteaser-type questions putatively aimed at identifying people gifted in mathematical reasoning. Companies frequently claim that these questions were selected as part of a general meritocratic philosophy. If you can answer these questions, they say, we’ll consider you a smart person worth hiring regardless of your educational pedigree. Now it’s certainly true that the ability to answer such questions is highly correlated with raw intelligence (whatever that may be). However, it seems to me that these questions are also meant to weed out people who are too “different”. What makes me suspect this? The kinds of questions they typically ask look nothing like the kinds of questions that cognitive psychologists and other researchers use to study IQ. If these companies really wanted to narrowly target raw intelligence, then they would use something like Raven’s Progressive Matrices tests, tests designed to be as culturally and educationally unbiased as possible.

Instead, they frequently ask questions like “If you roll a fair coin 10 times what is the expected product of number of heads and number of tails?” While there are probably multiple ways to solve this, I’m pretty sure the best and fastest way to solve this is to make use of the formulas for a binomial distribution. Honestly, I actually haven’t even tried to solve this problem, nor have I looked up the answer, but I’m still pretty darn sure the binomial distribution is the way to go because I have seen enough problems like this in the past. Because experience has taught me where to start, I would almost certainly solve this problem faster than a person with a higher IQ who happens to have never finished high school. Now, it’s true that my being able to answer this question at all almost certainly means that I am smarter than the average person, but that’s only because the truly average person wouldn’t be able to pass the stats course required for a math major. However, being able to answer this question tells the company nothing about my raw intelligence (which is what they claim to be measuring) over and above what my transcript can tell them. As a true test of IQ, this question does a terrible job of discriminating between kinda smart people like me and really smart people, especially those really smart people who haven’t had the “right” kind of experiences in life, such as that of going to an upper-tier university, having overbearing immigrant parents, or in the extreme case, having parents who aren’t in jail.

You might say that the question tests for a blend of raw intelligence and certain other traits like conscientiousness or self-motivation. However, this question is even worse as a test of those things. If you want to measure that, why not ask candidates about some real-world task that they’ve actually undertaken out of pure interest and curiosity and then find out how good a job they did. The only kind of conscientiousness a question like this seems to measure is the conscientiousness to memorize arcane questions for job interviews. It appears the only good reason to choose a question like this instead of a more standard IQ test question is to recruit precisely the kind of people who are likely to have a degree from a top university, have overbearing immigrant parents, etc. In short, they’re good for finding people like most of the ones who probably already work at that company, people who conform to that company’s cultural norm.

Please understand, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to recruit these kind of people. As measured by any reasonable standard these people are indeed smart, and they probably make the best employees. I’m just wondering why companies don’t say it. Is it just because it’s not acceptable to say it? Are they being honest but incompetent? In other words, do they really want to select for any kind of high-IQ person, but they’ve never thought about the inferiority of these tests? Is it illegal to use real IQ tests? I’m just curious.

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1 Response to “What people value and what they say they value”


  • Scholarly Gentleman

    Two economists walk past a Porsche showroom. One of them pointed at a shiny car in the window and said, “I want that”.

    “Obviously not”, the other replied.

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