Income and IQ


Jason Collins


March 28, 2011

As I noted in my recent post on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Gladwell ignored the possibility that traits with a genetic component, other than IQ, might play a role in determining success. His approach reminded me of a useful paper by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis from 2002 on the inheritance of inequality. Bowles and Gintis sought to explain the observed correlation between parental and child income (a correlation of around 0.4) by examining IQ, other genetic factors, environment, race and schooling.

As an example of the consequences of the transmission of income. Bowles and Gintis cited a paper by Hertz which showed that a son born to someone in the top decile of income had a 22.9 per cent chance of attaining that decile himself, compared to a 1.3 per cent chance for someone born to parents in the bottom decile. Conversely, a child born to parents in the top decile had only a 2.4 per cent chance of finishing in the lowest decile compared to over 31.2 per cent for those born to bottom decile parents.

As Gladwell did, Bowles and Gintis started their examination with IQ. To calculate  the inheritance of income through genetically inherited IQ, Bowles and Gintis considered the correlation between parent IQ and income, the heritability of IQ from parent to child and the correlation between IQ and income for the child. Breaking this down, Bowles and Gintis used the following steps and estimates:

  1. The correlation between parental income and IQ is 0.266.

  2. If the parents’ genotypes are uncorrelated, the genetic correlation between the genotype of the parents and of the child is 0.5. This can be increased with assortive mating (people pairing with people more like themselves) to a maximum of one (clones mating). Bowles and Gintis use 0.6.

  3. The heritability of IQ is 0.5.

  4. The correlation between child income and IQ is 0.266.

Multiplying these four numbers together gives the intergenerational correlation of income due to genetically based transmission of IQ. I think there is a mistake in the calculations used by Bowles and Gintis, as they find an intergenerational correlation of 0.01, where I calculated 0.02. This leads to genetically inherited IQ variation explaining 5.3 per cent of the observed intergenerational correlation in income. Regardless of the error, this is a  low proportion of the income heritability. (After I wrote this post I did a google search to find if someone had spotted this error before - and they had - on a earlier Gene Expression post on this same paper.)

I would have used some slightly higher numbers, but pushing the numbers to the edges of feasible estimates, such as increasing the correlation between income and IQ to 0.4, the genetically based correlation between parent and child IQ to 0.8 and the degree of assortive mating so that parent-child genotype correlation is 0.8 only yields an intergenerational correlation of 0.10. Genetically inherited IQ would account for approximately 26 per cent of the observed intergenerational correlation.

Unlike Gladwell, Bowles and Gintis then asked what role other genetic factors may play. By using twin studies, which provide an estimate of the degree of heritability of income (using the difference in correlation between fraternal and identical twins) and the degree of common environments of each type of twin, Bowles and Gintis estimated that genetic factors explain almost a third (0.12) of the 0.4 correlation between parent and child income. Loosening their assumptions on the degree of shared environments by identical twins compared to fraternal twins (i.e. assuming near identical environments for both identical and fraternal twins) can generate a higher estimate of the genetic basis of almost three-quarters of the variability in income.

From this, it seems that genetic inheritance plays an important role income transmission between generations. The obvious question is what these factors might be. I expect that patience or ability to delay gratification must play a role, although I would expect that there would be a broad suite of relevant personality traits. I would also expect that appearance and physical features would be relevant. Bowles and Gintis do not take their analysis to this point.

The authors finished their analysis with some consideration of other factors, and conclude that race, wealth and schooling are more important than IQ as a transmission mechanism of income across generations (although as the authors noted, they may have overestimated the importance of race by not including a measure of cognitive performance in the regression). That conclusion may be fair, but as they had already noted, there is a substantial unexplained genetic component.

This highlights the paper’s limitation, as once the specific idea that heritability of IQ is a substantial cause of intergenerational income inequality has been dented,  the identification of other (but unknown) genetic factors leaves open a raft of questions about income heritability. Using Bowles and Gintis’s conservative estimates, we still have 25 per cent of income heritability being put down to genetic factors without any understanding of what these traits are and the extent of the role they play.

In their conclusion, Bowles and Gintis touch on whether policy interventions might be based on these results. They are somewhat vague in their recommendations, but suggest that rather than seeking zero intergenerational correlation, interventions should target correlations that are considered unfair. They suggest, as examples, that there are large majorities supporting compensation for inherited disabilities while intervention for good looks is not appropriate.

One thing I find interesting in an analysis of heritability such as this is that over a long enough time horizon, to the extent that someone with a trait has a fitness advantage (or disadvantage), the gene(s) behind the trait will move to fixation (or be eliminated) as long as heritability is not zero. The degree of heritability is relevant only to the rate at which this occurs and only in a short-term context. The obvious question then becomes (which is besides the point of this post) whether IQ (through income or not) currently yields a fitness advantage. Over a long enough time period, variation will tend to eliminate itself and Bowles and Gintis would be unable to find any evidence of IQ heritability affecting income across generations.