Are rich people really smart? Study finds top 1% aren’t any brighter than others with good salaries

LINKÖPING, Sweden — Making a six-figure salary does not necessarily mean you’re the smartest person in the room, according to researchers in Sweden. While people with higher incomes do tend to score higher on IQ tests, the association only goes so far. In fact, some rich people in the top one percent of earners display less intelligence than their peers earning considerably less.

The findings suggest people cannot accurately determine whether someone is a genius simply by looking at their paycheck. Researchers from Linköping University examined wage data and matched them to a registry of the Swedish population holding scores from cognitive ability tests. The tests come from people who enlisted in the military at ages 18 or 19.

“This data trove permits us to test, for the first time, whether extremely high wages are indicative of extreme intelligence. To do so, we needed reliable income data that covers the entire wage spectrum. Survey data typically miss top incomes, but the registers offer full income data on all citizens,” says Marc Keuschnigg, an associate professor of analytical sociology at The Institute of Analytical Sociology at Linköping University and a professor of sociology at Leipzig University in Germany, in a media release.

When does intelligence stop being a factor in salary?

After reaching an income of about $64,400, the relationship between cognition and salary begins to weaken. The results show that the top one percent of earners actually do worse on cognitive tests than those in the income bracket right below them. According to study author Marc Keuschnigg, this is an important finding because the top one percent of earners make twice as much as those with average salaries in the top two to three percent.

There is a noticeable wealth gap between the upper, middle, and lower-class workers. In the United States, this income inequality has only risen in recent years. In debates justifying the enormous pay differences, a common defense among top earners is that it’s their unique talents that allow them to make so much money. Apart from working hard, however, the study suggests there is no evidence showing that people with top jobs should be paid more because they are smarter than those making half their income.

Most salaries among the Swedish citizens in the study were considered average and related well with their cognitive abilities. What’s more, the study authors find that the occupation you hold — another indicator of job success — between accountants, doctors, lawyers, professors, judges, and top government officials does not represent a person’s intelligence.

The study is published in the journal European Sociological Review.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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  1. If the authors of the study had a higher degree of intelligence, they might have looked for, and perhaps found, the characteristics that the higher earners did have. It would be nice to know what characteristics the higher earners did have that differentiated them from the “equally intelligent” lower wage earners.

    Also, there are different types of intelligence. In all likelihood, the higher wager earners probably had some skills that the lower earners did not have. Those added skills (social skills, persuasion skills) could be considered to be a form of intelligence.

    1. The study wasn’t about that. It was conducted to examine whether intelligence has an influence on becoming rich. Perhaps wealthy individuals are not necessarily highly intelligent, but like you said, they certainly possess valuable skills, have worked hard, and have also been fortunate along the way.

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