Are extremely rich people exceptionally smart?

  • 1 Nov 2018

    11:00-12:30, Clay Room, Nuffield College

  • Sociology Seminar   Add to Calendar
Speaker: Professor Arnout van de Rijt

Utrecht University

This event is part of the Sociology Seminar Series.

I seek answers to this question in two studies:

Study 1. A classic thesis is that scientific achievement exhibits a “Matthew effect”: Scientists who have previously been successful are more likely to succeed again, producing increasing distinction. We investigate to what extent the Matthew effect drives the allocation of research funds. To this end we assembled a novel dataset containing all review scores and funding decisions of grant proposals submitted by recent PhDs in a 2 billion Euro granting program. We employ a regression discontinuity design, comparing post-competition academic success of winners just above the funding threshold to that of non-winners just below it.

Study 2. It is well-documented that cognitive ability is positively associated with labor market success. However, wage distributions are sharply right-tailed, and most variance in wages involves the top few percentiles. We ask to what extent differences in the right tail of the wage distribution reflect corresponding differences in cognitive ability. There are two reasons to doubt the strength of the ability-wage link at the top: (1) extreme success may be a tell-tale sign of non-meritorious generative processes such as ascription and cumulative advantage, and (2) the effect of cognitive ability on wage may be mostly mediated by educational credentials, which require intelligence but not brilliance. Past studies lack the necessary coverage of top incomes to answer this question. We draw on Swedish register data containing measures of cognitive ability, education, wage, and occupational prestige for 640,000 men who took a compulsory military conscription test at age 18–19.    

The Sociology Seminar Series is convened by Richard Breen and Ridhi KashyapFor more information about this or any of the seminars in the series, please contact