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“A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points”

by Michael Nielsen on February 28, 2011

I was recently asked to prepare a two minute talk on a topic of my choice, for a small audience of about 10 people. Here’s what I came up with.

This is a one dollar bill [holds one up].

[Picking out two people in the audience] Alice and Bob – later in this talk I’m going to use the word “points”.

Can I ask you to pay close attention to what I’m saying, and when you hear me say “points”, stand up from your seat?

Will you do that for me?


Just to make it a bit competitive, I’ll give the first of you to stand up the dollar bill.

Many of us, myself included, often think of a person’s intellectual capacity as something that’s fixed, a feature of their innate makeup.

Intellectually, we may know that this is not so, but we take it so much for granted that it’s built into our language. We say “she’s very clever” or “he’s a bright guy” to describe people who we believe measure up when it comes to intellectual capacity.

A very different point of view has been put forward by the computer scientist Alan Kay. Kay’s saying is this: “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

[We have a winner! Gives out the dollar to Alice]

Hmm. “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

This is a saying that repays thought.

I just showed you in a very small way that it’s true: by changing Alice and Bob’s perspective on my talk, I’m betting they paid much closer attention to what I was saying. It’s not an 80 IQ point boost, true, but it’s still magical: a tiny shift in perspective can help us focus better. [* - but see footnote below, added in response to feedback]

It tells us that intellectual capacities aren’t innate, they can be dramatically changed by shifts in our perspective. And we can consciously develop strategies to shift our perspective. I don’t have time to review strategies for doing this, but I can mention one meta strategy, due to the musician Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt. They made up a card deck of oblique strategies. It’s a deck of blank cards on which they’ve written many different strategies for solving problems. Most of the strategies are ways of changing perspective: “What would your closest friend do”; “work at a different speed”, etc. When stuck on a problem you can draw out a card, and get a a new perspective.

I think we should all make up our own decks of oblique strategies that we can use to get new perspectives, and to give our own intelligence an occasional boost.

[*] A commenter on Hacker News makes the good point that offering a dollar may cause some people to screen out everything except the word “points” – they may end up effectively stupider. Unfortunately, I can’t ask my audience members “Alice” and “Bob” if this is the case, because after preparing the talk I was asked instead to give an extemporaneous talk. But the talk can be modified to take account of this observation. Suppose instead that I’d offered a dollar to whoever provided a better summary of the talk at the end of my talk. I’ve been in analogous situations in the past, and know that it made me focus a lot better.

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  1. Manoel Galdino permalink

    I was interested about how to develop these strategies…

    And in a related note, about IQ, have you ever read what Cosma Shalizi said about the topic?

    best regards

    ps.: and the book about the future of science?

    [MN: Yes, I've read Cosma's piece (well, skimmed in places, to be honest, although I did enjoy it). I'm using IQ as a convenient rubric here, as I guess Kay was too, not to make some deep assertion about whether or not there's a sensible notion of generalized intellectual ability. For what it's worth, I think IQ/g as it has been construed by certain psychometricians is a pretty silly notion. But that's a debate for another day.]

  2. Rudiger permalink

    What was the point of offering a dollar when the word “points” occurs?

    So that Alice and Bob give 100% of their attention?

    [MN: Yes. But see the footnote I've added to the post.]

  3. I recently wrote about this in a similar regard due to a recruitment effort:

  4. Bob Foster permalink

    Alan Kaye’s saying was “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”

    [MN: I remember it as I wrote it. Admittedly, I first saw it many, many years ago; I'm not sure where (Byte?). Incidentally, Kay's name has no "e".]

    [MN again: Some Googling suggests "A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points" may be correct, replacing my "of" by "in". I'm not going to stress too much about that difference.]

  5. Bob Foster permalink

    When googling, it helps to remember the original quote. E.g.,

    You are, however, right about the spelling of Alan Kay’s name.

  6. Josh Steinberg permalink

    re: Cosma Shalizi & the g-factor.

    As Steve Hsu (involved in the Cognitive Genomics Project) has pointed out, anyone who understands factor analysis realises that you can have correlations and a single largest factor even if there are no underlying causal reasons (i.e., it is just an accident). Nonetheless, these models may still be useful.

    Prior to the availability of molecular studies the heritability of type II diabetes was estimated at 0.25 using all those methods. Now molecular studies have identified at least 9 loci involved in the disease. There are other examples in relation to height. So you can’t say that heritability studies, with all their seemingly ridiculous assumptions, are worthless.

    In fact, reading Shalizi closely, you’ll see that he doesn’t think they are either. For instance, he says:

    ***If you put a gun to my head and asked me to guess [whether there are genetic variants that contribute to IQ], and I couldn’t tell what answer you wanted to hear, I’d say that my suspicion is that there are, mostly on the strength of analogy to other areas of biology where we know much more. ***

    Also, in his article on g he seems to accept in the footnotes that intelligence or cognitive ability, as operationally defined by psychologists, is important for economic development.

    His criticism of g is also met here. Still just 1 g: Consistent results from five test batteries Johnson et al
    Intelligence Volume 36, Issue 1, January–February 2008, Pages 81–95

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