I have struggled for quite some time with the question of why people continue to support obviously poor performers – whether in sports or politics (http://sensiblethought.com/2011/backing-losers-why-do-otherwise-rational-people-continue-to-ascribe-to-irrational-positions). This week presented me with more evidence that IQ is at least one factor.
A couple of years ago, I was a DoD employee leading a team of engineers and supply chain professionals working to restore the war-torn economies of the Middle East. I travelled one week to Kadahar, in southern Afghanistan, to meet with local Afghan government officials, and I was asked by contractor who was supporting my team at that time to look up a friend of hers while I was KAF (Kandahar Air Field). “Mary is a very close friend of mine,” she told me,”you just have to stop in the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office and say hello to her for me.” Building and maintaining friendships in a theatre of war is not a trivial matter – those friendships can last a lifetime, and even when they don’t, these friendships often serve to protect the sanity of those deployed. So, out of respect for our support staffer, I did as she requested. I did indeed look up Mary, passed along the greeting, and went on to conduct my business there. I was a little taken back with the general vacuousness of Mary when I met her. She seemed to me to barely be able to string words together into a sentence, and generally just didn’t seem to have much “on the ball”. I was corresponding with our staffer later that evening, and she asked whether I had looked up her friend while on base at Kandahar. I replied that I had, but that I was pretty unimpressed. The woman had barely grunted out a few words, and basically didn’t seem to be with it. “Yeah, that’s Mary all right”, our staffer replied, “she’s not the brightest tool in the shed.” (Note here that she didn’t say Mary wasn’t the “sharpest tool in the shed” or the “brightest bulb in the pack”, but rather Mary wasn’t the “brightest tool in the shed”.)
There are a number of lessons to be learned from that little exchange, not the least of which has to do with being careful not to criticise others when it may well point up our own shortcomings. That’s a trap I have fallen into more than once in my lifetime. But stepping back and looking at this, it also caused me to wonder about just how intelligent people are in general. According to Scientific American, “Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity.” (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-is-average-iq-higher-in-some-places).
This morning, I saw a Gallup Poll result which said: “Americans are about as likely to describe last Friday’s government jobs report as “mixed” (40%) as to say it is “negative” (42%), with a small number saying it is “positive” (9%). But many did not follow the news of the report closely.” (http://www.gallup.com/poll/155084/Less-Half-Friday-Jobs-Report-Negative.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=All%20Gallup%20Headlines%20-%20Business). Basically, the Gallup Poll editor was telling us that the American public isn’t intelligent enough, or paying close enough attention to what they are seeing and hearing to understand it’s meaning, or both.
As the Gallup web site points out: “The government reported that 69,000 new jobs were created in May, the lowest amount so far this year, and that the overall unemployment rate rose from 8.1% in April to 8.2% in May. Most news accounts of the report portrayed it in a negative light. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 270 points in Friday’s trading after the report was released, and there was widespread discussion of a “stalled” economy and of the potentially deleterious impact of the report on President Obama’s re-election chances. As NPR host Robert Siegel said on “All Things Considered” Friday afternoon: “It was the worst day of the year on the stock market. The Dow fell 274 points, putting the index back into negative territory for the year. The big reason? The latest monthly jobs report came in far weaker than expected. In May, the economy added just 69,000 new jobs.” Even so, as the article pointed out, “There has been no change at all in Americans’ perceptions of whether the U.S. economy is getting better or getting worse.” In other words, the American public – even those who reported that they follow news events closely – did not grasp the magnitude or the nature of what they were seeing.
All of this seems to point a phenomenon I have noticed a number of times before, and reflected on in other blog posts such as “Backing Losers” (http://sensiblethought.com/?s=Backing+Losers). It’s amazing how often I return to P.T. Barnum’s observation: “You will never go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It takes me back to the days when Ross Perot was running for President of the United States. He freequently used poster-board size charts to try to communicate graphically the financial information and other trends that were so frequently misunderstood or not understood by the masses. Many just didn’t understand the message or its importance even then. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in that case, not even a picture worked for Mr. Perot.
It casuses one to ponder just how plainly a message must be stated, how many times it must be repeated, and how loudly, before it will be widely understood. I think we are far more likely to understand the nuances of a commercial for auto insurance than we are to understand a news story that outlines the dire economic picture of our children’s future.
What do you think?
A recent Gallup Poll indicates that over half of us are no longer confident that the next generation of Americans have the opportunity to be better off than we are today. “Nearly six in 10 Americans are currently dissatisfied with the opportunity for the next generation of Americans to live better than their parents. Older Americans are particularly unhappy on this question, but on balance, the majority of young adults are negative as well. The idea of America as a place where citizens can rise above their economic position at birth depends partly on an economic system that rewards people based on effort and merit — not race, class, title, or other social barriers — and partly on Americans’ willingness to make a serious effort to succeed. Americans themselves currently have doubts about both aspects of that equation.” (http://www.gallup.com/poll/155021/Majority-Dissatisfied-Next-Generation-Prospects.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=syndication&utm_content=morelink&utm_term=All%20Gallup%20Headlines%20-%20Politics)
This certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone; at least not anyone who reads this blog. (http://sensiblethought.com/2011/lower-incomes-kill-people). I have been observing this phonomenon for some time now (http://sensiblethought.com/2011/impact-of-economic-downturn-on-children). The question is: Why don’t we care?
Of course, the attention span of the American public continues to shrink, as we are bombarded with more and more information, fed to us in near “real time” by e-mails, tweets, streaming audio and video, and so on. And as we are inundated with more, in order to keep our attention, major media channels have dubbed anything they come across as “breaking news” in order to arrest our attention. This, of course, means that it’s often difficult to immediately distinguish between truly important news such as the Challenger distaster, and celebrity focused noise such as a verdict in trial of the late Michael Jackson’s medical doctor. As this occurs, our ability to filter this sea of information and triage it, in order to focus adequately on the truly important is impaired from sheer overload, and from the trivializing of previous markers such as the term “breaking news.” As a result, some of the time Americans simply don’t recognize the importance of what we see and hear.
Another problem is that – especially in America – we are becoming increasingly and incredibly self-centered. We care, basically, only about those things that we perceive to have a possible near-term impact on us personally. In the case of the Gallup Poll mentioned above, it becomes obvious that our apathy now prevents us from taking meaningful action even when the economic well being of our children is at stake.
A number of studies have been conducted around this situation. As a recent article in Discover Magazine points out, “the results are significant and consistent across the different studies. Together, they paint a picture of an America where the choices that people hold dear can turn them away from attempts to solve important social problems, or weaken their empathy towards others in need.” (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/05/09/not-my-concern-%E2%80%93-how-choice-can-make-us-more-selfish/) Indeed, a number of books are being written about the growing selfishness of American society, and courses are being taught at American colleges and universities these days in how to become less selfish. (http://academic.udayton.edu/jackbauer/TSI%20book.html) Still, it’s especially difficult to understand how American adults can care so little about the future and the welfare of their progeny. Some insight comes from understanding that 564,765 children suffered from neglect, including medical neglect (USDHHS, 2007). I suppose that if Americans can directly neglect their own children in their youngest and most helpless stage of development, the less direct and less temporally relevant stages of their lives are logically even more suseptible.
So what should be done? What do you think?