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Are the highest-paid jobs with the highest prestige performed by the smartest people? No, say sociologists who used unique information about 59,000 men to uncover the connection between intelligence and wealth. From a salary of €60,000 per year upwards, there already ceased to be a relationship between a person's intelligence and his income. In fact, the real top earners even had a lower cognitive ability than the men beneath them in the group.
(photo: Unsplash/Hunters Race)

When someone has extreme success, we often think that this person also has extreme skills. But do the big earners and people with the most prestigious jobs really have the smartest brains? Sociologists Marc Keuschnigg (Linköping University in Sweden), Arnout van de Rijt (Utrecht University) and Thijs Bol (University of Amsterdam) examined the relationship between people's intelligence and their career success and concluded that intelligence cannot be used as a basis to explain why the people at the top earn the most.

Research among Swedish men

The sociologists focused specifically on Sweden because they had access to a unique dataset there. They could combine intelligence tests that were carried out on all men who entered the army when compulsory military service still existed in Sweden, with income data of Swedish citizens recorded in population registers. This allowed the sociologists to analyse 59,000 men to see which jobs they had in the future and link this to the intelligence test they had taken previously. ‘This meant we could see whether the richest men were also the smartest men’, explains Bol.

The very richest don't turn out to be the smartest

Although the sociologists found a relationship between income and intelligence, it flattens out very quickly. ‘Once the income really goes up, when the differences start to get really big, it doesn't make much difference how smart you are’, says Bol. From a salary of about €60,000 per year upwards, the relationship between intelligence and income disintegrated while the biggest differences in income are found after this wage level. 'In Sweden, the top 10% earns about four times as much as the 90 percent beneath them, but performed less well on the cognitive test.’

According to Bol, the fact that people earn so much more in the top 10 percent can therefore not be explained on the basis of their intelligence: ‘Luck probably plays a major role here, as does the social environment in which someone was born.’

More research is needed

The research was limited to cognitive skills, Sweden and men, as the sociologists had special data available for this analysis. The results therefore raise the question as to what extent a relationship exists between top wages and other forms of ability and to what extent their findings apply to other countries and to the entire working population. Further research is needed for this.

Publication details

Marc Keuschnigg, Arnout van de Rijt & Thijs Bol, 2023, ‘The plateauing of cognitive ability among top earners’, In: The European Sociological Review

Prof. dr. T. (Thijs) Bol

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Institutions, Inequalities and Life courses