Too smart to be a good cop

By Razib Khan | January 1, 2012 3:35 pm

Several readers have pointed me to this amusing story, Court OKs Barring High IQs for Cops:

A man whose bid to become a police officer was rejected after he scored too high on an intelligence test has lost an appeal in his federal lawsuit against the city.

“This kind of puts an official face on discrimination in America against people of a certain class,” Jordan said today from his Waterford home. “I maintain you have no more control over your basic intelligence than your eye color or your gender or anything else.”

Jordan, a 49-year-old college graduate, took the exam in 1996 and scored 33 points, the equivalent of an IQ of 125. But New London police interviewed only candidates who scored 20 to 27, on the theory that those who scored too high could get bored with police work and leave soon after undergoing costly training.

The average score nationally for police officers is 21 to 22, the equivalent of an IQ of 104, or just a little above average.

But the U.S. District Court found that New London had “shown a rational basis for the policy.” In a ruling dated Aug. 23, the 2nd Circuit agreed. The court said the policy might be unwise but was a rational way to reduce job turnover.


First, is the theory empirically justified? If so, I can see where civil authorities are coming from. That being said, it’s obvious that there are some areas where “rational discrimination” is socially acceptable, and others where it is not. The same arguments used to be applied to women, in terms of the actuarial probabilities that they would get pregnant and so have to leave the workforce. And disparate impact always looms large in the utilization of these sorts of tests.

Second, can’t you just fake a lower score on an intelligence test? Do police departments hire statisticians to smoke out evidence of conscious selection of incorrect scores? I doubt it. Jordan may be smart, but perhaps he lacks common sense if the upper bound for IQ was well known.

My initial thought was that an IQ of 104 seemed too low for a median police officer, but poking around it does seem plausible as a descriptive statistic. Honestly I don’t have much acquaintance with the police, so I’ll trust the scholars no this. That being said, is it in our social interest for police officers to be so average? I don’t know. Though is it in the social interest that someone with an IQ as high as Robert Jordan’s ends up a prison guard?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology
MORE ABOUT: IQ, Psychology
  • Chris

    Policing, at least in Australia (and I expect the US) is becoming a more congnitively demanding occupation. This is in part due to the very large increases in accountability and the complexity of the legal and regulatory environment that police work in. New models of proactive, problem solving and intelligence (information, not G) driven policing create an organisational environment that favors smarter operators. The complexity of modern police leadership also creates a space that favors smart, savvy and effective operators.

    At least some police need to be smart enough to come to terms with the ways in which information technology is creating opportunities for both criminals and police across a whole range of crime types, from child pornography through fraud and up to transnational crime, terrorism and corporate crime. These tasks are far beyond the demands of traditional beat policing.

    Even with out all this, a classic finding of occupational psychology is that smarter workers do better than dumb ones in all jobs, and certainly much better in more complex tasks. So as a society, we should do all we can to employ smarter cops.

    A focus on occupational turnover is a spurious one, as there is plenty of research around showing that turnover in policing is very much lower than in the private sector, and much lower than in other public sector jobs.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    When I first saw this story, I thought it must have been a repost of an old one, because when I was a freshmen in college, I remembered hearing about an applicant for a police position in Connecticut (my home state, more or less) who was denied the job because he was too smart. Reading the details of the story, it seems that applicant has been in litigation ever since.

    I’m fairly certain that studies have shown higher IQ leads to improved productivity for all jobs, even the most menial (albeit with less of a margin in blue-collar positions). Regardless, I’d say on the whole a high IQ isn’t needed for the police, when you consider the average criminal has an IQ 0.5 SD lower than the general public. An IQ of 104 is probably more than enough to outwit most criminals. Usually when local cops would be “in over their heads” the FBI would get involved regardless, and given what I know about the FBI recruitment and training process, I’d hazard a guess their average IQ is a bit higher.

    Finally, I’m not sure I understand the turnover concerns. While being a Police Officer can be a hard job in some jurisdictions, generally speaking the “golden handcuffs” which have been historically given as part of the job (generous pensions mostly) mean that most who work in these jobs will tough it out until their retirement (which sometimes is as early as 50, understandable given the nature of the job).

  • soren

    “And disparate impact always looms large in the utilization of these sorts of tests.”

    I think their filtering against those on the right of the bell curve is a facade to build some immunity in case someone on the left of the bell curve tries to sue.

  • veer

    “My initial thought was that an IQ of 104 seemed too low for a median police officer”

    What’s your mental model of someone with an average IQ?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    What’s your mental model of someone with an average IQ?

    i probably don’t have much of one in concrete/lived terms anymore. just had a minor concern of having to interact with someone so different from me in a position of authority, but then appreciated that i’ve avoided even minimal contact with law enforcement over my life (both cuz of my milieu and my lack of criminal actions).

  • Brian B

    > Second, can’t you just fake a lower score on an intelligence test?
    Not really. It’s called malingering, and it’s pretty easy to detect; in fact it’s such a well-researched concern that good psychometricians can even distinguish between “naïve and coached” malingerers. Bunch of links/resources at http://kspope.com/assess/malinger.php

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #6, yes, i know that. that’s why i stated: “Do police departments hire statisticians to smoke out evidence of conscious selection of incorrect scores?”

  • 0gre

    Two problems here:

    1) If police were more adequately rewarded for their service, perhaps there would less worry about policemen leaving the force. Not to mention less corruption.

    2) There is a progression within police departments. Cops move up in rank and some become detectives. Don’t we want smart detectives? No? My bad. I thought we wanted to solve crimes.

  • Grey

    “That being said, is it in our social interest for police officers to be so average?”

    As someone else mentioned most criminals are dumb as rocks but you need a few bright detectives at least. Unless New London is too small to need specialists this seems like a very strange policy. However if it’s the kind of place where nothing ever happens then maybe it makes more sense.

  • Cathy

    In my experience, boredom at work tends to come out of repetition, and that’s something that will aggravate anyone, average or smart. (It can also be negated with something as simple as piped in music.) However, police work is probable one place you’d be grateful for repetition – a peaceful city is one without anything exciting or out of the ordinary going on whatsoever.

  • http://behavecology.wordpress.com Steven

    “Jordan may be smart, but perhaps he lacks common sense if the upper bound for IQ was well known.”

    Unless he had decided to challenge a rejection on the basis of IQ before he took the test in the first place? As a way of setting (overturning?) precedent? I can’t tell that from the story.

  • observer

    #8

    Yeah, my concern about such a policy is the impact at the upper reaches of control at the police department.

    Do we really want to make sure that the chief of police has an IQ less than 120?

    I mean, the average McDonald’s worker may be less than 100 IQ, but I’d expect that every so often some bright enterprising young person can work their way up the organization. Or is that idea just dead in our meritocracy?

  • Gary b

    Hmm. I remember reading a few years ago (during research for a community leadership program) that the average IQ in US prisons was not lower but about 5 points _higher_ than average. But people in prison had high levels of ADD/ADHD, poor decision making and very poor impulse control.

    And I agree with the above poster who mentioned the need for some police officers to rise up into management, detective work, etc. So this policy is short sighted at best.

  • grandma shirley

    Maybe if there were more bright police officers, police departments like Seattle would not be in trouble for the use of excess force. It takes more skills to defuse tense situations.

  • Curlywurly

    “…if the upper bound for IQ was well known.”
    If it were well known, would this story be newsworthy then?
    Hence I suppose it isn’t that well known.

  • 4runner

    1) There are different “flavors” of discrimination in the U.S. For example, legally-defined “protected class” discrimination (e.g., race-, gender-, ethnicity-, religious-discrimination) by the government is almost always illegal. Outside of those legally-defined protected classes (e.g., intelligence), discrimination is almost always legal.

    2) In effect, the government doesn’t have any burden of proving that the “rational bases” for discrimination against those undefined classes are indeed “rational.” If a theory is knocked down as irrational, an alternative theory will simply be espoused over and over again until the person challenging the law gives up.

  • Miguel Madeira

    1 – “Even with out all this, a classic finding of occupational psychology is that smarter workers do better than dumb ones in all jobs”

    2 – “I’m fairly certain that studies have shown higher IQ leads to improved productivity for all jobs, even the most menial”

    Any link for one of these studies?

  • Kirk

    In light of the ‘Richard Feynmann had an IQ of 125″ meme (with the implication that he took a dive on the test for teh lulz) — now we all know how to become a slacker, smarter-than-the-average-bear cop. For the lulz.

  • Sophy

    Being of higher intelligence means one posses higher skills therefore better job performance. What about work environment? In my experience the office is often not that different to a school playground. A place where fart and poo jokes are often heard echoing from department to department, from entry level to executive. Where yo mamma jokes and rough housing are acceptable behavior. A person of higher intelligence has a harder time accepting this kind of behavior which can affect their work performance. We assume that being smart affords us privilege in life but being able to fit in is far more useful from day to day. People of average intelligence are far more likely to fit in than someone who has a higher level of intellect.

  • Miguel Madeira

    “Being of higher intelligence means one posses higher skills therefore better job performance”

    This is like saying “being a better swimmer means one posses higher skills therefore better job performance” – only in a job where swimming is an important part of the nature of the job (there is any reason to suspect that a good swimmer will be a good cashier?).

    About the point “studies have shown higher IQ leads to improved productivity for all jobs, even the most menial”, I wonder if these studies really measure what most people think when they discuss if IQ is really associated with high job performance in all jobs: I suppose that what people discuss when they are discussing this is if an individual with an IQ of 125 or 130 (or higher) will be better than a “normal” individual in a routine office job, or in a blue-collar job. But I supect that these cases are so rare in real world (people in this range of IQ are rare by themselfs, and even more in that kind of jobs) that what these studies are really measuring is that people with an IQ of 110 are more productive in these jobs than people with an IQ of 90.

  • Linda Seebach

    It’s not clear to me what “police officers average 21 to 22″ means; is 21 effectively the lower threshold? Is 21 the median or the mean? Usually with tests, it’s the median, and with threshold effects the median may be almost the minimum, given how rapidly the bell curve drops off.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    #3 I think you are right on the money. This is a crazy like a fox policy.

  • Konkvistador

    @soren: Perverse incentives strike again.

  • http://emilkirkegaard.com Emil

    #16

    “1) There are different “flavors” of discrimination in the U.S. For example, legally-defined “protected class” discrimination (e.g., race-, gender-, ethnicity-, religious-discrimination) by the government is almost always illegal. Outside of those legally-defined protected classes (e.g., intelligence), discrimination is almost always legal. ”

    The first part of this klaim is fals. Cf. positiv diskrimination that is both legal and widely praktised in the US. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirmative_action

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Miguel Madeira –

    Wikipedia has some citations in its IQ article regarding how higher IQ is a net plus for all occupations. This article seems to be the most relevant, but I don’t think a copy is available online for free. Perhaps you have an academic affiliation and can procure a copy however.

    Edit: Here is an executive summary, more or less. Around 20%-30% of variance in job performance at the lowest levels can be attributed solely to GMA (IQ) or conscientiousness. This is the minimum, with higher-level jobs even more attributable to only those two variables. No one has been able to determine what the remainder of differences in work productivity is due to – certainly nothing else seems to have as big of an impact as these two factors.

  • http://Www.soflaestateplanning.com David Shulman
  • http://www.futurepundit.com Randall Parker

    I’m with ogre: We need smart detectives. If the police departments provide a separate way to become a detective without first becoming a cop then I wouldn’t mind if they put upper limits on cop IQ.

  • toddv

    A long time ago I recall reading an article that referenced a Dept of Labor study that had identified ranges of IQ that correlated to job success. They determined that IQ was the best determinant of success followed distantly by initiative. Jobs had a range of IQ – above that range for a given job and you would become bored and be less productive and below it and you be unable to effectively perform. Some jobs of course have no upper range. I have never been able to find the actual study though. Anyone else ever see it?

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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