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23 January 2007

The Lesson of Prada

I finally got around to watching The Devil Wears Prada last night. While I found it very entertaining, I was struck by the important social commentary buried in the story. No, not the crap about finding yourself or being true to yourself or whatever nonsense it was ostensibly spouting. What it really is is a lesson about the overarching importance of intelligence in job success. As I'm sure you all know, the film is about a young midwestern Northwestern graduate (Andie Sachs), looking to break into journalism in the Big Apple, who applies for a highly coveted job as an assistant to Miranda Priestly, the frightening editor of Runway magazine (see Steve Sailer's excellent review). Before hiring her, Miranda spells out how ill-fitted the girl is for the job (other than her being, at a size 6, a bit over-sized in this milieu):

Miranda: So you don't read Runway
Andie: No...
Miranda: And before today you had never heard of me...
Andie: No...
Miranda: And you have no style or sense of fashion...
Andie: Well, um, I think that depends on what's your...
Miranda: No, no, that wasn't a question.

But Miranda takes a chance on her because of her apparent intelligence. As she explains later, thinking she might have made a mistake (because Andie was unable to find her a flight out of a hurricane-ravaged Miami):
I usually hire the same girl - stylish, slender, worships the magazine, but so often they turn out to be disappointing and - stupid. But you, with that impressive resume and the big speech about your supposed work ethic, I thought you'd be different. I said to myself, 'go on, take a chance, hire the smart, fat girl'.
But Andie succeeds spectacularly (except of course that at the end she must walk-away from this high-powered world so that she can be herself).

This theme - that the interest you have in a job is nowhere near as important as the brains you bring to it - was discussed recently in a gnxp thread commenting on Charles Murray's recent series on education. Commenter ANM points to this study, a meta-analysis of "85 years of research in personnel selection." The study found that
in the pantheon of 19 personnel measures [studied], GMA (also called general cognitive ability and general intelligence) occupies a special place, for several reasons. First, of all procedures that can be used for all jobs, whether entry level or advanced, it has the highest validity and lowest application cost.
In other words, intelligence testing is the most effective and cheapest way to predict job performance. This is true for the most analytical jobs to those jobs requiring almost no skills. But what about following your passions - isn't that an important predictor of success?
Many believe that interests are an important determinant of one's level of job performance. People whose interests match the content of their jobs (e.g., people with mechanical interests who have mechanical jobs) are believed to have higher job performance than with nonmatching interests. The validity of .10 for interests shows that this is true only to a very limited extent. To many people, this seems counterintuitive. Why do interests predict job performance so poorly? Research indicates that interests do substantially influence which jobs people prefer and which jobs they attempt to enter. However, once individuals are in a job, the quality and level of their job performance is determined mostly by their mental ability and by certain personality traits such as conscientiousness, not by their interests. So despite popular belief, measurement of work interests is not a good means of predicting who will show the best future job performance.
So there you have it - The Devil Wears Prada, Hollywood's stealth endorsement of The Bell Curve.


Blogger agnostic said...

the film is about a young midwestern Northwestern graduate (Andie Sachs), looking to break into journalism in the Big Apple

Sounds like Donald Trump's reality show, The Apprentice. I watched it for awhile since it was one of the few shows that required a certain level of brains, but it became depressing after awhile watching smart people expend their fleeting hours thinking up an ad campaign to help Speedstick capture the hip 20-something market.

I know civilization isn't going down the toilet by letting these people pursue a career in mainstream journalism (then again...), but think of how much more we'd have if only a dictator compelled them to enter the arts and sciences!

January 24, 2007 3:12 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

The free market sure seems to be sending out the wrong signals when it comes to telling smart young people what society wants them to be doing.

January 24, 2007 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know. It seems pretty evident to me that that's exactly what society wants them to be doing--making money by helping other people make money.

You know, I'm just curious: in this huge list of factors they analyzed and couldn't find one more important than intelligence, nobody looked at interpersonal skills?

January 27, 2007 8:55 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

I looked up a more recent study by these authors (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 86(1), Jan 2004. pp. 162-173.), where they confirm the pre-emininence of GMA. They also examined the Big Five personality factors, and found some significant contributions, however:
it is also important to control for the effects of GMA. When GMA is added to the regression equation, the (shrunken) multiple correlation rises to.63. Again, it is instructive to examine the beta weights: Neuroticism, β = –.05 (SE =.096); Openness, β = –.03 (SE =.113); Conscientiousness, β =.27 (SE =.128); and GMA, β =.43 (SE =.117). From these figures, it appears that the burden of prediction is borne almost entirely by GMA and Conscientiousness, with GMA being 59% more important than Conscientiousness (i.e.,.43/.27 = 1.59). In fact, when only GMA and Conscientiousness are included in the regression equation, the (shrunken) multiple correlation remains the same, at.63. The standardized regression weights are then.29 for Conscientiousness (SE =.102) and.41 for GMA (SE =.096). These analyses suggest that Conscientiousness may be the only personality trait that contributes to career success.
So interpersonal skills may not be so important, after all. That does conflict with common sense, but I wonder how much of interpersonal relations "skills" are really just conscientiousness and intelligence in action? Is it really important to have a "good personality" or is it important to be proactive in dealing with people (conscientiousness) and be able to communicate clearly (intelligence)?

January 27, 2007 1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find that very hard to believe, actually. We all know smart, conscientious (i.e. organized) types with poor interpersonal skills. (Aspergers anyone?) Do you really think investment bankers and law firm partners are that smart? I'm not talking about political beliefs or ignoring global warming or any of that crap, but seems to me businessmen are primarily salesmen, and their job involves selling themselves and their company to other businessmen.

Of course, they're talking about across-the-board competence. It's entirely possible that most jobs benefit from intelligence but that the sales jobs that take up the top tier of the income ladder do so to a lesser degree, or that other factors like extraversion are more important.

February 04, 2007 1:15 PM  

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