Cognitive inequality

It has by now become a well-known trope that automation of low-skilled jobs hits certain parts of the population much harder than others. And that this trend is likely to continue in the future. But most people think about this inequality in terms of education, not in terms of cognitive abilities. Few people are aware of how pervasive the problem of cognitive inequality is. And even fewer think about what to do about it.

The standard IQ test with mean 100 and standard deviation 15 follows a normal distribution. Therefore 15.86 percent of people will have an IQ of lower than 85, 2.2 percent will have an IQ lower than 70. People who are not endowed with certain cognitive abilities find it harder than others to go through life. Lower IQ is associated with higher occurrences of mental health issues like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia and also with higher all-cause mortality and morbidity (see e.g. here). They have to constantly struggle to attain a ‘normal’ expected by society that is simply not easily attainable. They have it harder to go through schools, find jobs, make friends and retain romantic relationships. The US army has an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery that translates into the Armed Forces Qualification Test which is somewhat similar to an IQ test. Generally, only those that are at least in the 31st percentile (performing better than 31 percent of their peers) are allowed to join the army. This corresponds roughly to an IQ of 92. There are some exceptions to this rule, but generally it should be very hard for you to join the US army with an IQ of less than 85. The Spanish army for years had an IQ minimum of 90 and only lowered that recently for lack of recruits. The US army infamously experimented with admitting recruits with lower intelligence during the Vietnam war in what was called Project 100,000. Soldiers admitted through the Project 100,000 faced many difficulties and were much more likely to die in combat. The project was heavily criticized and eventually ended in 1971.

I am not trying to make a point about the army, but about the job market in general. Should we believe that the average job in our modern complicated society is much easier than a job as a soldier in the US army? Or should we rather believe that a person who is cognitively unfit to serve in the army will also find it hard to contribute usefully to most other jobs outside of the military? This affects a huge number of people: About 30 percent of the population have an IQ lower than 92. If you take a lower limit of 80 or 85, at least 10 to 15 percent are deemed cognitively unfit to positively contribute to the army. This isn’t something we can just ignore. This isn’t something were we can just tell people to put more effort into their work and education. Rather we should take cognitive inequality and the associated mental health issues seriously and think about what we can do to alleviate it. One possibility could be a Universal Basic Income. We could simply accept that not everyone has the the capability to be profitably employed in a capitalistic system. For some people, training and employing them is just much more costly than the benefit they can bring to an employer. These people are currently shamed and excluded. They are usually told that their situation is entirely their own fault. Society should free them from unnecessary pressure, instead of enforcing standards and goals that are unrealistic for many to attain.


  1. Technology Trap
    Carl Benedikt Frey, codirector of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, wrote a book about the history of technological progress and how it has radically shifted the distribution of economic and political power among society’s members.
    Drawing parallels from the Industrial Revolution to our current age of automation he talks about how the Industrial Revolution brought extraordinary benefits for society and how artificial intelligence systems have the potential to do the same.
    But he also demonstrates how the loss of middle-income jobs and the loss of income, of those affected by it, led to the growth of economic inequality.
    Frey points out, that today’s despairing middle class has not resorted to physical force, like in the nineteenth century when workers violently expressed their concerns over machines taking their jobs,
    but their frustration has led to rising populism and the increasing fragmentation of society.

    Here is an interesting talk he gave at the DLD Conference in 2019

    might be interesting for some of you

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