There’s a new blog post over at The 74 commenting on a “finding” that I’ve seen reported in other places (e.g., Inc and Forbes).
There are two parts to the claim.
- “[Valedictorians] do well, but they don’t go on to change the world or lead the world.” Elsewhere these behaviors are characterized as those of "disruptors."
- “School rewards people who follow the rules, not people who shake things up,”
This blog post would make a good final exam question for an undergraduate course in experimental methods. (If you like, head on over and see if you can find the problems in the claims.)
Problem #1: The evidence offered for the claim that valedictorians do not become “disruptors” is that a study of 81 valedictorians showed few or none became disruptors. To draw the conclusion “valedictorians don’t become disruptors” you need to show that fewer valedictorians become disruptors relative to other achievers e.g., non-valedictorians in the top quartile, or better, compare valedictorians to all students sorted by grade quartile. That few valedictorians become disruptors is expected--the baserate is low (i.e., very few people in any group would be expected to be disruptors).
The second bit of evidence offered is that a study analyzing 700 millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. First, It’s not obvious that status as a millionaire means you’re a disruptor. Second, if the criterion for disruption is income, well, it’s well-known that GPA predicts income.
Problem #2: The author not only assumes a relationship between two variables (status as a valedictorian & status as a disruptor) based on inadequate evidence, but also claims to understand the causal relationship; both are caused by a third variable, conformity. It’s great fun to propose causal mechanisms when you haven’t measured the relevant construct, but absent other evidence, it ought to be thought of in just those terms: fun, merriment, whimsy. If the relationship actually exists, we can have equal fun proposing other causal relationships; disruptors are bad at assessing risks but valedictorians are good at assessing risks; gaining status as a valedictorian makes people buy into societal norms; disruptors don’t do very well in school because they aren’t very smart—that’s why they take big risks.
See, isn’t this fun?
Maybe the book is better. If so, this is a case of careless reporting. Either way, it’s a case of careless thinking.