Books that can talk?
May 6, 2011 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Are there any articles or books that talk about how IQ disparities between individuals affects communication?

I seem to recall reading somewhere that meaningful conversation is difficult if two individuals are more than such and such IQ points apart. Does anyone know of any articles or books that discuss this phenomenon?

An aside: I realize IQ is a pretty arbitrary measure of one kind of intelligence, and I am not asking about the validity of using IQ to predict anything. However, if there is a publication/study like the one I describe above, I think it would have interesting implications for other types of intelligence that are not as easily measured (emotional, physical, musical, etc.).
posted by 3FLryan to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
dfriedman: perhaps the gap isn't constant -- perhaps, say, a person whose IQ is 100 and one whose IQ is 110 have as much trouble communicating as someone whose IQ is 140 and someone whose IQ is 155. In particular I could imagine that if there is actual research on this subject, some sort of averaging happened before it got out to the popular press.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:07 PM on May 6, 2011

Best answer: I have a feeling this may be the thing you recall reading. Quote:

This is indeed what we have come to. An acquaintance of mine, an academic in the human sciences (not Charles Murray) holds the opinion that across an IQ gap of more than one standard deviation (i.e. about 15 points), communication between two people becomes difficult, and that beyond two standard deviations it is effectively impossible.

(2nd google result from googling iq disparity communication)
posted by ManInSuit at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, ManInSuit. That might be exactly what I recall reading, because I remember whatever it was mentioning standard deviations. I'll have to not give up on googling so easily next time.
posted by 3FLryan at 1:20 PM on May 6, 2011

You might have more luck with articles or books about communicating across different class/economic backgrounds. My experience is that if all else is equal then higher intelligence makes it easier to communicate because it implies a better mental model of the other person. Consider the difference between two young children negotiating, a child and adult negotiating, two adults negotiating, and two business owners with MBAs negotiating.
posted by sninctown at 1:37 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: I understand your point, sninctown. There are all sorts of cross correlations, but here is where I am going with this question:

Let's say IQ provides a good indication of a person's ability to verbally understand complex ideas. Let's also say there is a person ("A") with a 150 IQ that wants to communicate a complex idea ("X") to a person with a 100 IQ ("B") and to a person with a 145 IQ ("C"). It seems that A would communicate X to B in a different way than to C. It also seems A would have a tougher time communicating with B than with C, unless A really got a kick out of the trying exercise of jumping his speech and thought through "lower" hoops.

This has a whole host of fun implications. For example, what could be one reason good teachers hard to come by? Well, people smart enough to have an ironclad grasp on complex ideas are scarce, and the set of those people that are also willing and able to "talk down" to people that can't grasp them must be even smaller.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2011

Let's say IQ provides a good indication of a person's ability to verbally understand complex ideas.

Except that it doesn't really. Verbal IQ or core language ability might though. Pragmatic skills, economic background, educational level, social status and a host of other things will also play into this scenario. One of the most basic problems with your assertion is that information regarding cognitive skills isn't terribly useful for people of average skills and above. Maybe if your persons A, B and C all had various degrees of mental retardation and difficulty adapting/repairing communication breakdowns - then you might be onto something.

The other issue is that the article that you refer to is... well... crap. This excerpt that the author uses to illustrate these communication difficulties:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League [degrees], and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

That has nothing to do with differences in cognitive abilities and everything to do with being a stuck up, class-ist asshole.
posted by lilnublet at 2:26 PM on May 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, the article is crap. But it is a starting point from which I can look into this thoroughly.

All else equal, do you think it is easier for two people with 150 IQs to communicate or a person with 150 IQ and 100 IQ? That is the question I am interested in.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:37 PM on May 6, 2011

I don't think there would be any discernible difference/difficulty between either group based solely on that criteria, no.
posted by lilnublet at 2:40 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: OK, thanks for your opinion. I guess I am looking for scholarly studies on this issue. Maybe there aren't any.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:42 PM on May 6, 2011

High quality research on that elusive thing we call intelligence is hard to find because it's so hard to define and observe objectively.

As counterexample to the thesis, however, adults and young children are quite able to communicate with each other despite huge differences in vocabulary, abstract cognition, etc. Communication is much more about intention and empathy than it is about IQ (or so I believe).
posted by SakuraK at 6:27 PM on May 6, 2011

I don't know if it's a straight SD or what, but the guy who teaches an introductory neuro class I TA for is absolutely friggin' brilliant, but cannot explain shit to most of the folks in class (with the exception of the handful of kids who grok what he says initially, because they too are wicked smart and have a lot of background).

It's pretty much my job to be smart enough to figure out a pragmatic solution to the disconnect between what the prof wants the students to know and what they're likely to understand (provided that they don't get turned off entirely by his stream of neuroscience consciousness [which is pretty awesome to behold, on the days that I'm with it enough to see what he's talking about]) but not so smart that I rave and jabber about the top level of my understanding to the students without considering their level.

It's weird to be a translator across intelligence divides. Weird job.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:30 PM on May 6, 2011

This question, from a smart person, shows communicating well is not automatically tied to an IQ number. I don't know how much meaningful conversation you can have with a person who cuts you off in mid-sentence, even if your IQs are the same.

An acquaintance of mine, an academic in the human sciences (not Charles Murray) holds the opinion that across an IQ gap of more than one standard deviation (i.e. about 15 points), communication between two people becomes difficult, and that beyond two standard deviations it is effectively impossible.

There's no way 30 IQ points renders communication impossible, or poor Stephen Hawking would not have sold many books.

I am reminded of a scene from Nightmare Before Christmas where the mad scientist takes out half his brain to make himself a new Frankenstein companion and says contentedly, "We'll have conversations worth having."
posted by griselda at 6:32 PM on May 6, 2011

Another interesting data point: US presidents have a wide variety of IQs - far more than 2 standard deviations in range. They presumably have to communicate successfully with a wide variety of people. This Wikipedia article is about the hoax report about Bush having a subnormal IQ, but it references an article from Psychology Today that reportedly gives an academic summary of presidential IQs.
posted by SakuraK at 6:33 PM on May 6, 2011

OK, thanks for your opinion. I guess I am looking for scholarly studies on this issue. Maybe there aren't any.

They don't exist largely because most people who have done this kind of research have unshakable ties to the eugenics movement. If your definition of "scholarly" is generous enough, email these guys for some historical items of interest, however racially distasteful they may be.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 6:36 PM on May 6, 2011

You might want to look up the paradox of the expert. I think you may have more luck with the teacher theory if you think about knowledge and expertise rather than native intelligence.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:51 PM on May 6, 2011

The problem is not so much great disparities in IQ as it is great disparities in education. When people work with a topic frequently and become very familiar with it, it becomes very difficult to imagine what it was like when the topic was new to them. They no longer remember what was difficult about learning it in the first place. So when speaking to someone first learning about the topic, they take for granted that their audience understands things that the audience doesn't and don't communicate well.

This is a common topic in education literature, and in particular constructivist education literature. Von Glasersfled is probably a good place to start. He began as a linguist and went on to study learning, so he directly addresses some of these ideas. Radical constructivism: A Way of knowing and Learning may be a good place to start. Another article that addresses the mechanics of communication from this perspective is Thompson's reply to Lerman. Neither of these sources directly address the issue of why education disparities make communication difficult, but they form a basis of the theory of the interaction between growing knowledge and communication and you can go from there.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:15 PM on May 6, 2011

As a side note, IQ highly correlates with education, so it may be that what you started looking at is a side effect for the education - communication problem.
posted by yeolcoatl at 7:19 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: These are all great comments, thanks.

So just to beat my pedantic thought experiment drum harder (I carry lots of these around), in the example of two 150 IQs talking to each other, I am imagining some baseline of verbal prowess that allows for complex metaphors and intuitive leaps here and there that might not be possible between a 150 and 100.

In this scenario, two 150s have more collective "ammunition", so to speak, and use that ammunition in multiple and diverse ways, whereas a 150 and 100 would have to use a much more limited set of ammunition with which to hit the same target (e.g., use more straightforward language and more "common" cultural symbols).

My thought is if the target (meaningful communication) is hit between a 150 and 100, it might be less "natural" for both, thus causing some sort of discomfort for either and being more "difficult" than normal, unless either likes going outside his "normal" mode of communication / understanding.

Perhaps this comes with practice as well - an academic with a high IQ who never speaks with anyone outside his circle would have great difficulty speaking with a non-learned person, whereas Tupac, who I am assuming had a very high IQ, could communicate perfectly well with all types because he has lots of practice. And I do not mean to imply anything racial about IQ; Tupac was simply the first person to spring to mind who clearly had an incredible intellect but no formal education. Perhaps it is exposure to and understanding of a variety of ideas that matters most.

I am also imagining two virtuoso jazz musicians having a conversation with their instruments, then one of the virtuosos tries to have an "instrument-conversation" with a novice, and how this could be similar or different to the 150 vs 150 and 150 vs 100 scenario. Perhaps this goes too far into the realm of "skill" instead of 'intelligence", but the lines are blurry to me. I guess it's time for some reading.

Oops. There goes my train of thought. Thanks for the links.

I'd also just like to stress I don't think a "higher" [any kind of] intelligence is necessarily "better", simply that diverse intelligences may pose a challenge to communication.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:51 PM on May 6, 2011

The whole concept of "an IQ" has been so thoroughly debunked (see Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man") that I'm always surprised when I see it being seriously discussed.
posted by Neiltupper at 7:54 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Let's say it is found that it is hard for people with hugely different sized coffee tables in their houses to communicate. I'd like to know why, even though I don't care how big a person's coffee table is.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:03 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding, looking at the other factors that are related to intelligence, but don't require it. Communication is a skill somewhat independent of intelligence. It requires an understanding of what you know, an understanding what the other person knows/state of mind, and understanding of cultural cues/context. General intelligence can help, but not guarantee skill/knowledge in those three areas.
There are quite a few different fields that have to deal with this. Education was linked above. The others I know are pyschology and sociology branches of linguistics. Searching Google scholar for Theory of mind and pyscholinguistics will give some good articles as does sociolinguistics, miscommunication, and intelligence

And for my personal anecdote, one of my professors told me to always know how to communicate things in three ways when going to conference: 1) to someone not in the field 2) A beginner in field 3) to an expert in the field. I felt it also applied to day to day life regardless of the subject. Communicating is not easy and does require a bit of forethought.
posted by roguewraith at 10:08 PM on May 6, 2011

This is at the population level but might be something like what you want? Typing this from phone but hopefully can do a proper search later.
posted by tel3path at 3:12 AM on May 7, 2011

IQ is a very rough marker for intelligence - the question is how well IQ is correlated with Theory of Mind/Empathy skills. On the whole, if you consider that someone who is more intelligent is likely to have *better* theory of mind, and better predict someone's thoughts/actions, then one-way communication is likely to be improved.

I've had the rather odd experience of having someone I was close too, go through a health problem that meant they were kind of intellectually impaired for awhile. The odd thing was, normally I wouldn't know what they were thinking, it could be anything, they're a complex adult, but they were down to such slow thoughts, and such a basic level of communication, that I pretty much knew how they were going to react to a room, new information, how they were interpreting a conversation. I ended up playing translator quite frequently, because whenever they got confused by what other people had said, I tended to know what they would have gotten confused by, and be able to explain. Thing is, to a lot of other people, who either didn't know them as well, or... well this is where we get into whether it was an IQ thing or not, but to other people their behaviour was very erratic and confused. To me, their behaviour got very, very predictable.
Anyway, it was good for our relationship, because they were relieved to have someone they could still communicate with in a non-stressful manner, and it was kind of odd, that when they got better, we were kind of back at the more distant/awkward communication, but having been through an interesting experience together.

I think if you consider Theory of Mind, communication is about how well you can predict the other persons mind to structure a message that will be interpreted well, and interpret the other persons message. If people are very similar, theory of mind is easier, less variables need to be adjusted for, if very different you need someone who is has that much better theory of mind skills that they can 'compensate' - and translate between the different mind-styles. And I've seen very, very bright people work really well with small children, the intellectually disabled, and those with mental health issues, because they were able to bridge the gap somehow.

The worst miscommunications are between people who think they are speaking the same 'language' - ie have a similar 'mind-style' and they don't. Dunning-kruger effect - too incompetent in each other's 'languages' to realise they are incompetent.
posted by Elysum at 8:20 AM on May 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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