Is intelligence based wage discrimination wrong?

Currently many countries are passing anti-discrimination laws for the employment sector. It is increasingly considered morally wrong to pay someone less based on their genetically or environmentally determined traits, such as race, gender, age and certain mental or physical disabilities. However there is one trait that is universally left out of this anti-discrimination trend and that is intelligence; An intelligence based salary system remains completely acceptable despite the fact that we have little more control over our level of intelligence than our gender.

Here it is worth pointing out that when referring to intelligence I refer to it in its most narrow sense. That is the type of intelligence that flourishes in the conventional work environment and the traditional educative system (i.e linguistic, logical-mathematical and interpersonal), although, once through the educative system, the logic followed is equally applicable to other types of intelligence.  I will also highlight the fact that for many, intelligence is at least partially hindered or facilitated by the education system they have access to. There are many not so intelligent kids out there who, either for geographical or financial reasons, are lucky enough to receive an excellent education and as a result have a massive head start in the employment race, and equally, there are many extremely intelligent kids who for the very same reasons never even get their foot on the first rung of the education and therefore employment ladder.

Nevertheless, the majority of people in the developed and semi-developed world have access to a public education system, and this educative system is by nature extremely intelligence based. In every school there are the naturally more intelligent and less intelligent children and in every school that I went to and have heard of (with the exception of the very rare alternative education schools) pupils are extremely aware of their position in this intelligence hierarchy. A child’s hierarchical intelligence placement will initially be reflected by his/her grades; High grades often mean more attention from the teacher and may well determine which “ability set” the child is streamed into later in their school career, which in turn accentuate grade differences even further.  This very early focus on a child’s grades has an unprecedented effect on their later life, as it dictates the child´s likelihood of staying in school, of attending and completing higher education and the quality of that education and finally, as a result of the aforementioned, their success in the employment sector.

The result being that a few lucky ones, who are deemed intelligent enough to make it through this unnecessarily hierarchical educative system, get a chance to enter the job market of the intermediate to well educated. Meanwhile those who barely receive a pass mark in their exams, or are pushed out of the system altogether shortly after entering adolescence, are doomed to a life time of menial employment.  The lucky ones who fall into the former category will on the whole receive much higher salaries than those who fall into the latter category. However this salary is not certain; The educated employment sector is extremely competitive and how well you do relies largely on your ability to do the job better than others, which in turn depends on intelligence and to a lesser extent on effort applied. In other words, it is widely considered that the more efficient secretary, or productive engineer, deserves a higher salary than the less efficient secretary, or less productive engineer.

This system, which blatantly discriminates against the less intelligent right from an early age into adulthood, is widely justified as being a necessary component of the competitive capitalist and industrial market that we are all part of. That is, without such salary based discrimination the employment sector would collapse as there would be no incentive for those of above average intelligence to use that intelligence in an economically productive manner. The main scientific basis for this assumption is that workers respond positively, in terms of productivity, to incentives of bonuses. However, there is little evidence to show that the quantity of a fixed annual salary has a significant effect on employer productivity; Instead many studies cite job satisfaction as the major driving force behind productivity and job satisfaction has a very low correlation with salary and a very high correlation with managerial practices such as recognition and facilitation of accomplishments.

Further evidence that the employment system would not suffer if all secretaries had equal salaries or the wages of a laborer in a menial job were the same as those of a scientist is circumstantial. Anyone who has worked as a laborer on a building site or in a factory line as well as in a more intellectually challenging job will tell you that no financial incentive is needed to strive for a position in the more intellectually challenging job. Menial work is considered dangerously dull by the majority of people, as humans are an innovative species who naturally strive to learn. Moreover, humans naturally take pride in what they do and no one goes to work to deliberately do a bad job.

The few businesses, such as Alvarado Street Bakery, which have taken this data and put the notion into a working business model have not suffered as a result. The employees of Alvarado Street Bakery earn on average between $65,000 and $70,000, which is a wage that most corporations would consider economically unfeasible, yet the bakery has been open for 35 years. The tightly woven integration between management and staff as well as the worker cooperative model under which it is run contribute to high levels of job satisfaction and productivity, which are reflected in long term employees (15yrs on average) and high product turnover, respectively.

An inequity of salaries based on intelligence driven performance or job complexity is therefore not the way to boost a country’s employer productivity. Instead a focus on enhanced managerial methods would do the trick equally well or even better. In the end there is no valid reason to continue with an employment system that discriminates against the less intelligent or educationally unfortunate.

Do you think that a less intelligence based education and employment sector would work and be widely beneficial?

Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London

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For your reference:

2.       Judge, T.A., et. al. 2010. The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature. 77: 157-167.

 .       Amabile T. and Kramer S. (2011) Do Happier People Work Harder. The New York Times.

Harter J. K., Schmidt F. L., Asplund J. W., Killham E. A. and Agrawa S (2010) Causal Impact of Employee Work Perceptions on the Bottom Line of Organizations. Perspectives on Psychological Science.



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  1. I am just an engineering student who’s interested in social issues. Forgive me if my thoughts are too naive 🙂 I think intelligence-based pay system we currently have in many countries is definitely a form a discrimination. While it is true that some people outperform others, sometimes it is not a matter of how much effort has been put into the work but rather intelligence, one’s trait that is almost determined at the birth (despite being able to change within a range). For example, people who work in McDonald’s often work nonstop and there are plenty of office white collars who can create more values to the companies while enjoying a more leisure working style. Of course, family background, personality, and other factors all come into play, but being able to create more values and perform better still come down to higher intelligence. And since intelligence is something we have little control over, I think it is fair to say the intelligence-based pay system is a sort of discrimination. And I agree many people would prefer a mentally challenging career than a labor work and that is a very important incentive itself. A good example is Japan. I don’t remember the exact details, but I recall from my freshman econ class that the top 20% average income in Japan is only four times of the bottom 20% (I’m very condifent it’s four times but I don’t remember whether the actual study was comparing top and bottom 20% or 25%). Japan is probably one of the countries with the smallest gap between the poor and the rich. Despite not having weaker financial incentive, we all know Japan is one of the top leading countries in technology and innovation. I think that in some way proves that a more egalitarian society is practical. I’m not saying Japan has no income gap because it still does but at least its gap is much smaller compared to countries like US. Also just because such a system works for Japan doesn’t mean it will work for every country. Cultures and values could play very important roles affect the consequence of adopting such an egalitarian system. However, I do think money is a strong incentive for many to work hard, and for some it could be more important than the jobs per se. Such an extra incentive should not be overlooked. Another important factor to consider is the scarcity of the resources. Taking medical school as an example, there are only so many people schools can accept. If the medical school choose not to take the brightest students they can get, they fall behind of other schools. So it’s like a game theory or prisoner dilemma. The only possible way to make this happen is if every school decides to treat students equally regardless of their intelligence, but would that really be a good thing for the society? And if all companies and employers adopt similar policy, the country would lose its competitiveness in a global market. Of course if every country does the same, then it’s possible but then the question becomes whether it is a good thing for the well beings of human. I think offering jobs to more qualified people is probably a discrimination since those who perform better might just have more resources including more educated family and higher intelligence at birth. However, such discrimination is a necessary evil in order for schools, companies, countries, and we human beings to stay competitive and advance. What we can do though is to narrow the income gap but we also need to make other changes accordingly. If we go back to the medical school example, medical school tuition is ridiculously high and if there isn’t a high rate of return after those students graduate, no sane person would even consider medical school as an option. The alternative is to make the tuition free and doctors’ income lower at the same time. Would fewer people go to medical school if the income is only slightly higher than average? Probably yes but there will still be many who are inspired by the possibilities to save people’s life and cure diseases. Of course such a change would require and result in change in other areas but it’s still feasible.

  2. If the article is not written with tongue in cheek (which I suspect) it is a case of confusion of correlation with causation. Competition, not bias, is the reason for the correlation between higher pay and intelligence.

    We have no mechanism that accurately and fairly allows us to compensate workers, from top to bottom of the pay scale on the basis of their contribution to the success of the employing organization. Until we find that, we will pay way is needed to attract and hold the employees with the qualifications to do the job. The world needs x number of medical doctors, physicists, CEOs, secretaries, retail clerks, firemen, factory workers, etc. Each of these requires a variety of knowledge, skill, and physical requirements. The smaller the number of people with the qualifications for each, the greater the competition for those who do, and the higher salary an employer must offer to attract them.

    If I and another are totally equal in our education, skills acquired, and record of performance but are paid differently based solely on our differing scores on a standardized intelligence test, that would be discrimination, just as it would be if we were of different genders.

    If the argument is simply that everyone should be paid the same regardless of the skill set and knowledge brought to the job, then I am at a loss to understand how such an economic system might work, as it dismisses the concept of “value” and in such a system, all products should cost the same. Human nature being what it is, there would be few medical doctors or any other professionals who have to invest much time, dollars, and agony to develop the knowledge and skills to fill such positions, when one could attain the same income walking dogs or mowing lawns. Both of the mentioned positions are worthy occupations, and needed, but how much would one wish to pay for them? If one assumes the only difference between a medical doctor making six figures and a retail clerk is prejudice about their intelligence, I had better stay well.

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      You make some worthy points but i think you miss the point of the article.

      Only people of certain levels of intelligence can complete the necessary education that is needed to become a doctor (for example). Many people find it next to impossible to get the grades in school that are required to enter medical degree courses and therefore due to their lesser intelligence never get the chance to earn the doctors 6 figure salary, which is a type if discrimination against intelligence. obviously there are exceptions to this rule, for example people of lesser intelligence can become extremely rich through becoming famous; however, it is true for most.

      As you say, if a more equal pay system were to existed people it would dismiss the concept of value. But do humans really have different values? Are some humans more valuable than others? and if so is it right that this value is dictated by the skills we happen to aquire throughout our life? as in the end the two major underlying factors behind the skills aquired are opportunity and intelligence (in one form or another). I admit that constructing such a pay system would present challenges but as i say at the end of the article i don´t forsee the lack of drive to attain an education and thus skills as one of these challenges. you claim that if lawn mowers were paid the same as doctors then no one would strive to be a doctor, which to me shows you have never worked as a lawn mower. as I say in my reply to Jan Lighfoot, doing menial work on a regular basis for me was a huge motivator in getting an education, not because of the low salary, which at the time was plenty for me to live off and more, but because it is extremely dull and if i´m going to spend a third of my day doing something i want it to be interesting and worthwhile. this concept exemplified in the medical world where many doctors choose to work for the public sector despite its lower pay packet or even do philanthropic work in third world countries, implying that helping people is an underlying motivating cause behind their choice to aquire the necesarry skills to enter the proffession. This idea is supported further by the 18th century medical world, when many doctors earned an extremely modest wages despite their prior training, yet people still became doctors. the academic world is another example of this, the education to salary rewards of becoming an academic a very small, but academics continue to exist as for many it is a very intellectually rewarding profession. These examples show that if a proffession is rewarding there will be people out there who will persue it reguardless of its pay package – that is obviously assuming that its pay package is enough to live off.

      what i propose in this article may sound unfeasible and idealistic, but as my idealism promotes a fairer world i am not ashamed to promote it. as for the unfeasable side, we are an imaginative race, so if salaries do have to differ between one job and another i´m sure we can think of an alternative system to skills/intelligence, such as the pleasantness/unpleasantness of the work. to a certain extent this already happens – i once heard of an opportunity to earn 100 pounds an hour by washing corpses in a morgue, i also heard that despite this high salary they were still lacking in applicants, showing once again that money isn´t everything.

  3. Either the lead piece was written with one’s tongue firmly implanted in the cheek (which I suspect), the author has confused correlation with causation. Supply and demand is more the case, Competition governs. If anyone can ever come up with a totally unbiased and accurate method of paying people for their contribution to the organization paying them, the inventor will either become incredibly rich, or assassinated (there are some of use who fear being paid what we are worth). Until that time we will pay people what is needed to attract the workers we need. If, the argument is that everyone should be paid the same regardless of contribution to the success of the employing organization, then we are not talking about discrimination, but rather philosophy, morality or ethics, different topics entirely.

    The world needs x numbers of nuclear physicists, biochemists, CEOs, factory workers, waiters, heavy equipment operators, firemen, etc. Each of these positions has some inherent intelligence as well as physical requirements. Fewer people will, for reasons of intelligence or willingness to slog through college to get the degrees, do the work that demonstrates the capability of satisfying the job requirements for some of these positions, resulting in a scarcity of those with the needed qualifications and thus the competition for those that have them.

    If, without regard to my ability to do the work of an accountant, or medical doctor, I was hired or denied employment based on my intelligence measured on some standardized test, that would be intelligence-based discrimination. If I and another medical doctor both had the same grades in medical school and the same record regarding patient care upon assuming practice, but I received a lower salary from a hospital that employed us both based on my lower score on that intelligence test, then that would be discrimination, just as it would be if we were otherwise equal but of different genders.

    The correlation between (wherever the data came from) intelligence and salary, correlates even better with the number of people available with the necessary qualifications to do the job. To assume that the only or even principle difference between a medical doctor making six figures and a retail clerk making minimum wage is intelligence discrimination is quite a stretch, and would cause me great concern when ill.

  4. I like you making a point for intelligence based wage discrimination. But just thevery bright levels made enough to pay the basic cost of living.
    Let me see, my IQ is at least 110 but due to my emotional handicap I make about $7,600 or a dull income. It is dull because I cannot buy the entertainment, most of the IQ’s of 125+ think is their right as being human.
    Well $36,000 in 1992 might have been thought of as good pay twenty years ago it barely covered the esstentails of life. The basics of life was even then 1.4 a week times the monthly rent. Rent was lower back then say about $475 that would have meant to break even on all the modest lifes basic or to escape the grasp of poverty, one most of made aroung $525. each week. $525 Times 52 weeks would have been $27,300. This is a bit ove the Brights income. And $7,300 over the normal income.
    I think its time society pays enough so everyone breaks the real poverty level, that is one dollar less than the True Livable wage.

    I think it is wrong to pay the disabled, welfare families, etc, the dull level of income. To say nothing about paying the Bright hundreds of dollars less than the need.

    When you say “Further evidence that the employment system would not suffer if all secretaries had equal salaries or the wages of a laborer in a menial job were the same as those of a scientist is circumstantial.” I personally want to learn more. Where do I look? All who say the economy of enough is unfeasible had not heard of those study.

    • i totally agree that everyone should recieve a salary that brakes the poverty level no matter what their job or skills are.

      When i say “Further evidence that the employment system would not suffer if all secretaries had equal salaries or the wages of a laborer in a menial job were the same as those of a scientist is circumstantial.” I refer to may own work experience; i have done menial work as a cleaner, an office assistent (at the most basic level), a laborer on building sites, farm laborer (collecting and chopping logs, moving stones from one side of the farm yard to the other etc) and extensive bar work as well as slightly more skilled work as i librarian and now truly fulfilling work as a research and communications intern at INESAD. Everyone has there own abitions but this ambition normally involves a desire to use their working hours in a fulfilling manner and therefore for most no insentive is needed to get the education or skills required for a fulfilling job – this is at least after they have experimented with menial work, i was a terrible student i had no plans to go to uni until i worked part time as a cleaner and assistant in a local office and realised i wanted a lot more from a third of my day. Therefore if laborers were paid the same as scientists most scientific minded people would still strive to be scientists rather than settling for a life time of menial work as a laborer. Science is a particularly good example as in general it is not well paid and it requires a huge amount of education yet despite these deterrents many still people embark on the mission to become one.
      So far what i have said mainly refers to the latter part of the sentence in question, the former part about all secretaries being paid the same refers to the natural pride we take in what we do. i have been paid i number of different wages for the jobs i have done, this wage has reflected more the inclinations of the employer than the difficulty or pleasantness of the work yet i have never thought to myself “ooh, i better work harder in this job than the last because i´m being paid more”, if the effort i apply to my work reflects anything it is how much i like my employer and the institute that i am working for.

  5. I agree that measurable intelligence is something that the more fortunate have the best chance of being able to display. But I think the definition of menial is fluid over time. In South Wales, where I am from, a lot of people used to be paid fairly low wages for industrial, semi-skilled work, whereas office work tended to be better rewarded. But as those industrial jobs disappeared they have been replaced by fairly, low paid menial office work in call-centres, and the few industrial jobs that do exist are now highly skilled, well paid and require advanced qualifications.

    Certainly intelligence doesn’t equate to competence and I would rather we rewarded the latter. It would be interesting to transform the workplace by rewarding qualities such as kindness, generosity and modesty instead – qualities open to everyone. Productivity relies on these qualities as well – I’ve worked for plenty of intelligent, highly paid people who were poor managers.

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      you are right in that menial is a very fluid concept when it comes to employment and that intelligence in the traditional IQ sense does not equate to competence in the work place. however i would like to point out that in the article i include “interpersonal” intelligence under my definition of intelligence, this type of inteligence is more commonly known as social intelligence and although it does not directly refer to generosity, kindness and modesty, it does tend to encompass such traits. Social intelligence is something that is increasingly considered important in the work place, but as you say there an abundance of managers out there who seem to lack it in its entirety.

  6. Intelligence based wage discrimination – there is simply no such thing. There is no correlation between intelligence and salary. – This might be Mieke’s problem: She probably as an IQ on average trying to become more intelligent with the ambition to receive a higher salary but reality will teach here that you are not paid for your intelligence or reasearch design but for the role you play in a society (and scientists usually are underpaid).

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      Below is the mean American income in 1992 for different IQ groups:

      Very Bright (125+) $36,000
      Bright (110-124) $27,000
      Normal (90-109) $20,000
      Dull (75-89) $12,400
      Very Dull (less than 75)$5,000

      Änd if you still don´t think there is intelligence based wage discrimination, how do you explain that people in the well paid position of CEO have an approximate IQ of 112-132 while people in the low paid sector of factory work have an approximate IQ of 81-103, is this a product of chance?


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