“A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points”

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.