When it comes to getting ahead, is IQ or EQ more important? There are tons of studies that weigh in on the question using a variety of approaches, but according to Joseph Henrich, a professor of human biology at Harvard who studies how cultures evolve, a little bit of math can settle the question once and for all.
Butterflies vs. Geniuses
Henrich's insight comes from his book The Secret of Our Success. Always fascinating blog Farnam Street recently pulled out the relevant passage. It's based on a thought experiment featuring butterflies and geniuses.
Butterflies are pretty but insubstantial, so if you asked people whether they'd rather be a butterfly or a genius, I'm betting most people wouldn't hesitate before choosing genius. But butterflies are also social creatures, often congregating in swarms. Henrich's thought experiment points out just how big an advantage friendliness can be.
Imagine two groups of people, he writes. We'll call them the Geniuses and the Butterflies for short. The Geniuses are, well, geniuses. They come up with one groundbreaking invention every 10 human lifetimes. The Butterflies aren't nearly as bright. They take 1,000 lifetimes to come up with a world-changing invention.
But what the Butterflies lack in cognitive horsepower they make up for in social skills. Each Butterfly has 10 friends. The egghead Geniuses are a little awkward. They only have one friend. Now imagine everyone goes about their business trying to learn about cool, new inventions, either by figuring them out for themselves or learning about them from friends.
Which society does better, the one where the people are a hundred times smarter (the Geniuses) or the one where they're 10 times more social (the Butterflies)? Henrich runs the numbers and comes up with an answer:
Suppose learning from friends is difficult: If a friend has [an innovation], a learner only learns it half the time. After everyone has done their own individual learning and tried to learn from their friends, do you think the innovation will be more common among the Geniuses or the Butterflies?
Well, among the Geniuses a bit fewer than 1 out of 5 individuals (18 percent) will end up with the invention. Half of those Geniuses will have figured it out all by themselves. Meanwhile, 99.9 percent of Butterflies will have the innovation, but only 0.1 percent will have figured it out by themselves.
My mind is blown. How about yours?
Communicating ideas within a group might not feel as impressive as coming up with brilliant ideas alone in a corner. Chatty Cathys clearly have less cultural mystique than Nobel laureates. But without them new ideas don't spread fast enough to make a big impact. When it comes to group success, EQ matters more than raw IQ.
Why you should hire more butterflies
This fascinating thought experiment is a nice ego boost for the communicators and connectors of the world, but as Farnam Street points out, it's also a valuable lesson for anyone putting together a team
"Of course, you want to have smart people. But you don't want an organization full of Geniuses. They might come up with a lot, but without being able to learn from one another easily, many of their ideas won't have any uptake in the organization. Instead, you'd want to pair Geniuses with Butterflies--socially attuned people who are primed to adopt the successful behaviors of those around them," the post concludes.
Remember that next time you're weighing whether to hire another brilliant but prickly loner for your team. Maybe it's time to give that kind and communicative candidate a serious second look.