Sean Cate
Sean Cate
September 27, 2023 ·  3 min read

The Ultra-Rich May Actually Be Less Intelligent Than Lower-Paid People, Study Finds

It may be easy to believe that the wealthiest individuals are exceptionally intelligent or hardworking, often serving as role models for success. However, a recent study challenges this notion, suggesting that the ultra-rich might not be as intellectually superior as we think. The research analyzed data from nearly 60,000 men and revealed intriguing insights into the relationship between intelligence and income.1

Traditionally, intelligence has been linked to economic success, but this study took a different approach. Researchers examined cognitive scores and labor information from Swedish military conscripts, tracking these individuals for 11 years. They found that there was a strong correlation between intelligence and income until a certain threshold, approximately €60,000 ($64,000USD) annually. Beyond this point, the relationship between intelligence and income became nearly negligible.

Even more striking was the discovery that individuals in the top 1 percent income bracket, the ultra-rich, didn’t necessarily exhibit higher intelligence than those immediately below them. In fact, their cognitive abilities were slightly lower, challenging the assumption that extreme monetary success is a direct result of superior intellect.

Despite these findings, it’s important to acknowledge the study’s limitations, such as its primarily male sample. Further research with more diverse samples is needed to generalize these results. So, if you’re searching for intellectual role models, remember that wealth doesn’t always equate to intelligence.

The Myth of Extreme Intelligence among the Ultra-Rich

The research focused on elite jobs and their economic and political significance, given the strong right skew in income distributions. Top earners, particularly the top 1 percent, receive a significant share of national income. It’s crucial to ensure that such income disparities are earned by highly capable individuals, considering their economic and public influence.

While previous studies have established a positive correlation between cognitive ability and wage earnings, this study explored the relative intelligence of the ultra-rich. The research proposed that at high levels of success, the relationship between ability and income weakens. It suggested that family resources and luck, rather than extreme ability, might drive success at the highest levels.

The study analyzed data from men who underwent cognitive-ability tests at age 18–19 and followed their career paths. The results indicated that cognitive ability plateaus at high levels of occupational success. In terms of wages and occupational prestige, ability ceased to differentiate individuals’ success beyond certain thresholds.

These findings challenge the assumption that top earners are inherently more intelligent. While the study has its limitations, it suggests that merit, particularly in terms of cognitive ability, might not be the primary factor differentiating the extremely successful from the rest.

In a world where income inequality is a growing concern, these insights into the relationship between intelligence and success shed light on how different strata of the labor market function. While the majority of individuals experience income levels that respond to their cognitive abilities, those in the highest income brackets may not necessarily be more deserving. The study highlights two distinct regimes of stratification in the labor market, emphasizing the complex interplay of factors influencing extreme success.

Implications for Society and Income Inequality

The study’s findings significantly impact our understanding of income inequality and meritocracy in modern society. As income disparities continue to widen, there’s often a defense of top earners based on the belief that their success reflects superior merit, including intelligence.

However, this research challenges that defense. It suggests that extreme success, particularly in terms of income, may not necessarily result from exceptional intelligence. Instead, factors like family resources and luck may play a more substantial role.

The debate about interventions to address income inequality is ongoing, and these findings add a new layer of complexity. The traditional belief that the ultra-rich are exceptionally intelligent might not withstand scrutiny. This raises questions about the fairness of income distribution and whether wealth truly reflects merit.

In conclusion, while we often associate extreme wealth with extreme intelligence, this study challenges that assumption. It suggests that the relationship between cognitive ability and income is more nuanced than previously thought, particularly at the highest income levels. As we grapple with the challenges of income inequality and strive for a fairer society, understanding the true drivers of success becomes increasingly important.

Keep Reading: Man works out how much money you’d have made buying Apple shares instead of an iPhone every time a new one has been released


  1. The Ultra-Rich May Actually Be Less Intelligent Than Lower-Paid People, Study Finds.” IFL Science. Jack Dunhill. February 7, 2023.
  2. The plateauing of cognitive ability among top earners.” Oxford Academic. Marc Keuschnigg, et al. January 28, 2023.