INDUSTRY ANALYSIS

Are Mac Users Smarter Than PC Users?

My wife has a Dilbert cartoon on her office door in which one of the characters says: “If you have any trouble sounding condescending, find a Unix user to show you how.” She’s a Mac user and they were worse even before they all became Unix users too.

Or maybe not. But finding out whether the average Mac user really is smarter than the rest of us isn’t so easy. Part of the problem is that even if you matched the admissions test results for a graduate school with individual PC or Mac preferences to discover a strong positive correlation, people would argue that the Mac users are exceptional for other reasons, that the tests don’t measure anything relevant, and that it’s unethical to do this in the first place.

In fact, it’s pretty clear that this topic is sufficiently emotionally loaded that you’d get shouted down by one side or another no matter how you did the research; and that’s too bad because a clear answer one way or the other would be interesting.

I doubt it’s possible to get a definitive answer, but as long as you don’t take any of it too seriously you can have a lot of fun playing with proxies such as the average user’s ability to read and write his or her native language. This isn’t necessarily a reasonable measure of intelligence (mainly because intelligence has yet to be defined) but almost everyone agrees that a native English speaker’s ability to write correct English correlates closely with that person’s ability to think clearly.

Measuring Written English

In other words, if we knew that Mac users, as a group, were significantly better users of written English than PC users, then we’d have a presumptive basis for ranking the probable “smartness” of two people about whom we only know that one uses a Mac and the other a PC.

So how can we do that? As it happens, Unix has been useful for text processing and analysis virtually from the beginning. In fact, the very first Unics application offered text processing support for the patent application process at Bell Labs — in 1971 on a PDP-11 with 8 KB of RAM and a 500-KB disk.

By coincidence, Interleaf, the first GUI-basedDocument-processing package, was the first major commercial package available on Sun — in 1983, well before Microsoft “invented” Windows and well ahead of the first significant third-party applications forthe Apple Lisa.

During the 12 years between those two applications, text processing and related research became one of the hallmarks of academic Unix use. By the early eighties therefore most Unix releases, whether BSD- or AT&T-derived, came with the AT&T writers workbench — a collection of useful text processing utilities.

One of those was a thing called style. Style is somewhat out of style these days but is on manyLinux “bonus” CDs and downloadable from gnu.org as part of the diction package.

Style produces readability metrics on text. Forget for the moment what the ratings mean and look at the numbers. For comparison, here’s what style says about the first 1,000 words in what is arguably the finest novel ever published in English: The Golden Bowl readability grades:

Kincaid: 18.2ARI: 22.2Coleman-Liau: 9.8Flesch Index: 46.7Fog Index: 21.7Lix: 64.4 = higher than school year 11SMOG-Grading: 13.5

Of course, that’s Henry James at the top of his form.

Slashdot and Other Style

For a more realistic and interesting baseline, I collected about 2,800 lines of Slashdot discussion contributions and ran style against them to get the following ratings summary along with a lot of detail data omitted here:

Kincaid: 7.7ARI: 8.0Coleman-Liau: 9.7Flesch Index: 72.4Fog Index: 10.7Lix: 37.1 = school year 5SMOG-Grading: 9.8

Notice that these results apply to comments from Slashdotters, not to the text on which they’re commenting. Look at the source articles and you get very different results because, of course, most are professionally written or edited — although there is an interesting oddity in that ratings for files made up by pasting together stories posted by “Michael” are consistently at least one school year higher than comparable accumulations made from postings (other than press releases) by “Cowboyneal.”

Comments put in discussion groups aren’t usually professional productions like news articles. You’d expect those to rate considerably higher; and they do. Here, for example, is the summary from running it against five articles taken from today’s online edition of The Christian Science Monitor:

Kincaid: 10.4ARI: 12.5Coleman-Liau: 12.9Flesch Index: 59.5Fog Index: 13.3Lix: 48.8 = school year 9SMOG-Grading: 11.6

Lots of smart people have put effort into arguing that these readability scores are either meaningless or meaningful, a choice that apparently depends rather more on the writer’s agenda than research. Most of the more credible would probably agree, however, that higher rankings are mainly useful as a rough guide to thewriter’s expectations about his or her audience but lower rankings do correlate directly with the writer’s education in English and indirectly with intelligence.

So what happens if we treat the Slashdotters, a mixed bunch if there ever was one, as a median and then compare the ratings shown above with results from “pure play” Mac and PC communities?

The PC Community

I tried running style against text collected from various PC sites. The very lowest ratings came from text collected from an MSN forum host, but I only got about 600 lines because the forums suffer the Wintel design disease of requiring you to click for each new text contribution and I get bored easily.

Kincaid: 2.9ARI: 1.9Coleman-Liau: 8.0Flesch Index: 89.5Fog Index: 6.0Lix: 21.5 = below school year 5SMOG-Grading: 7.1

The highest PC-oriented ratings came from a sample of about 2,500 lines taken from reader comments hosted by PC Magazine:

Kincaid: 5.9ARI: 5.9Coleman-Liau: 9.0Flesch Index: 79.3Fog Index: 9.0Lix: 32.2 = below school year 5SMOG-Grading: 8.8

Notice that both sets score well below the level of Slashdot’s contributors.

And the Mac Users?

So do Mac users differ? You bet. Here’s the ratings summary based on about 3,000 lines of text taken from reader comments hosted by the Macintouch site:

Kincaid: 8.9ARI: 9.4Coleman-Liau: 10.0Flesch Index: 67.8Fog Index: 12.0Lix: 40.5 = school year 6SMOG-Grading: 10.7

Not only were these ratings significantly higher than those given Slashdot’s contributors, and thus better than those given text from the PC sites, but the vocabulary was larger too. Without collapsing words to their root forms, but after removing punctuation (including capitalization) and numbers, the Macintouch stuff had 870 unique words to only 517 for the combined PC sites.

Overall, the results are pretty clear: Mac users might not actually be smarter than PC users, but they certainly use better English and a larger vocabulary to express more complex thinking.


Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.


16 Comments

  • I can’t tell you how much I enjoy Paul Murphy’s good sense of humor. Non-mean spirited, ‘shoot from the hip’ type of journalism.. and fearlessly going forward in a mean spirited press atmosphere today, it is refreshing! In this score-keeping climate of anger and control speak freaks, Paul is a breath of fresh air.
    Get over yourself…
    I know I AM not alone and others yearn to be freed by a guy on a soapbox who is unafraid!
    I AM hoping Mr Murphy will comment on the following non-operating systems) topics as well:
    Scwarzenneger and the ‘girlie-man’ comments
    Martha Stewart and Nelson Mandela
    Michael Moore (oh yuck) and oh yes…a part two on the IQ wars between mac and pc users
    All is ok in America today, thanks to MNW and Paul Murphy

    • Extensive research over the last 60 years has shown the readability formulas. They are 80% reliable in predicting the difficulty of a text. The experts agree that they give a good estimate of readability. The variables they use, the lengths of words and sentences, are the best objective predictors of style difficulty we have.
      The Microsoft Word implementation of the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level formula is defective: it only goes up to the 12th grade. As many documents today are well above the 12th grade, you need to know that.
      The most reliable readability formula, with a coefficient of r= 0.92, correlated with text comprehension as measured by reading tests, is the Dale-Chall formula, which uses a list of 3,000 "easy" words understood by 4th graders. There is an online implementation of this formula on the Okapi Web site.
      Although the readability formulas have been around for many years–and are used by publishers in many languages–they are not used enough by writers. Much education of writers, editors, and the general public is needed.
      The average adult in the U.S. is a reader of limited reading ability, reading at the 7th-grade level. That is the level most popular novels are written. USA Today and Readers Digest are written at the 9th-grade level. Most newspapers are written at the 10th-grade level. Some, like the L.A. Times are written at the 12th-grade level.
      For a brief description of the extensive research on readability, go to this paper on the NALD Web site:
      http://www.nald.ca/fulltext/readab/readab.pdf
      Johnny Lee

  • I was AM used by the less-than-ideal readability of the article itself! For example, look at this paragaph:
    "Comments put in discussion groups aren’t usually professional productions like news articles. You’d expect those to rate considerably higher; and they do. Here, for example, is the summary from running it against five articles taken from today’s online edition…"
    In the second sentence, what does the word "those" refer to? It is grammatically AM biguous at best. (Fix: "the latter")
    Then I’d take issue with the use of the semi-colon in that sentence. (A comma would do.)
    In the following sentence, it is not immediately clear what "it" refers to. (Fix: "the program")
    I wonder what kind of computer the author uses? 🙂

  • I’m a Mac user and I decided to see how the style program would rate my own writing. Below are the results:
    Kincaid: 12.6
    ARI: 14.3
    Coleman-Liau: 14.3
    Flesch Index: 46.0
    Fog Index: 16.3
    Lix: 55.1 = school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 14.0
    The text used for analysis was a paper I wrote for a graduate level course. After completing analysis of that paper, I gave the style program a writing sample from a non-native speaker, whose writing had a number of small quirks throughout it; here are the results:
    Kincaid: 10.9
    ARI: 12.7
    Coleman-Liau: 15.2
    Flesch Index: 50.0
    Fog Index: 13.2
    Lix: 54.8 = school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 12.0
    The results are really not that different from my own. His writing is ‘good,’ but most native speakers would instantly notice some issues with flow, and strange wording (he’s a PC user, by the way).
    So, what about papers I wrote before I was a Mac user, on a PC (and as an undergraduate)? According to style, I was actually a better writer using Windows:
    Kincaid: 16.6
    ARI: 19.8
    Coleman-Liau: 12.0
    Flesch Index: 44.2
    Fog Index: 19.5
    Lix: 61.5 = higher than school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 14.0
    Once a writer reaches a certain proficiency level, computerized grading of style is totally useless. I decided to feed style Faulkner’s short story, "A Rose for Emily;" here are the results:
    Kincaid: 7.7
    ARI: 8.9
    Coleman-Liau: 8.8
    Flesch Index: 77.6
    Fog Index: 10.5
    Lix: 34.9 = school year 5
    SMOG-Grading: 8.6
    Hmm, Faulkner wrote at a grade 5 level — just like most PC users! I suppose I can feel pretty good about myself, since according to a computer program my writing style is superior to one of America’s greatest authors. Computers cannot grade style.
    If you want to make this research fair do the following:
    1) Judge Mac and PC users with the same educational background. Perhaps go even further and make sure the users have similar professional backgrounds (for example, English majors; lawyers; doctors, etc.) Additionally, they should all be native speakers.
    2) Use formal writing samples, not random junk from message boards.
    With all that said, I do generally agree that Mac users are smarter than the average PC user. Why? Because making a conscious decision about which operating system you run in a Microsoft monoculture exhibits SOME kind of critical thinking beyond that of the average person.

  • I’m a Mac user and I decided to see how the style program would rate my own writing. Below are the results:
    Kincaid: 12.6
    ARI: 14.3
    Coleman-Liau: 14.3
    Flesch Index: 46.0
    Fog Index: 16.3
    Lix: 55.1 = school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 14.0
    The text used for analysis was a paper I wrote for a graduate level course. After completing analysis of that paper, I gave the style program a writing sample from a non-native speaker, whose writing had a number of small quirks throughout it; here are the results:
    Kincaid: 10.9
    ARI: 12.7
    Coleman-Liau: 15.2
    Flesch Index: 50.0
    Fog Index: 13.2
    Lix: 54.8 = school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 12.0
    The results are really not that different from my own. His writing is ‘good,’ but most native speakers would instantly notice some issues with flow, and strange wording (he’s a PC user, by the way).
    So, what about papers I wrote before I was a Mac user, on a PC (and as an undergraduate)? According to style, I was actually a better writer using Windows:
    Kincaid: 16.6
    ARI: 19.8
    Coleman-Liau: 12.0
    Flesch Index: 44.2
    Fog Index: 19.5
    Lix: 61.5 = higher than school year 11
    SMOG-Grading: 14.0
    Once a writer reaches a certain proficiency level, computerized grading of style is totally useless. I decided to feed style Faulkner’s short story, "A Rose for Emily;" here are the results:
    Kincaid: 7.7
    ARI: 8.9
    Coleman-Liau: 8.8
    Flesch Index: 77.6
    Fog Index: 10.5
    Lix: 34.9 = school year 5
    SMOG-Grading: 8.6
    Hmm, Faulkner wrote at a grade 5 level — just like most PC users! I suppose I can feel pretty good about myself, since according to a computer program my writing style is superior to one of America’s greatest authors. Computers cannot grade style.
    A major factor left out of this article is the author’s intention. As I write this post, I’m using a different (though perhaps not better, or worse) style than if I were writing a formal article or paper; web discourse is usually MUCH LESS formal, and people have a tendency to think less about ‘good’ style while posting on a message board. If you want to make this research fair do the following:
    1) Judge Mac and PC users with the same educational background. Perhaps go even further and make sure the users have similar professional backgrounds (for example, English majors; lawyers; doctors, etc.) Additionally, they should all be native speakers.
    2) Use formal writing samples, not random junk from message boards.
    With all that said, I do generally agree that Mac users are smarter than the average PC user. Why? Because making a conscious decision about which operating system you run in a Microsoft monoculture exhibits SOME kind of critical thinking beyond that of the average person. In general, the Mac OS environment DOES make me feel more creative and free, however creativity of artist freedom won’t help one gain higher style ratings by a simplistic computer program.
    One could probably argue Linux users are more intelligent than Windows users, but I like the Mac/Windows comparison better since it examines the common user without getting into a geek/newbie dichotomy. Hmm, perhaps this study could be extended further by comparing the Windows IT drones to Linux guys; I suspect the Linux guys will come out on top.

  • I think the comparison is apples to oranges (pun intended). Did the Mac users AM ong you get the joke?! 🙂
    Seriously, though… the PC Mag site allows you to essentially sign up and post. The Macintouch site requires that you e-mail a submission, and it appears that these are then essentially editorially chosen. So the Macintouch postings are bound to be more carefully written, as I presume they are filtering out the junk.
    -MonkeyBoy

    • I’m curious if the population of Mac users is indeed less than the PC population or if that is just a long-perpetuated misnomer.. and if the Mac users do indeed have a substantially lower following than PC users, if that may have an impact on the data collected? All in all though, a very interesting and thought-provoking topic with many a case in point posted on this very thread regarding the passion in which computer users in general defend their chosen platforms. 🙂

  • MACINTOSH BAD COMPUTER! HULK NO LIKE BAD APPLES!
    Tiny keys too SMALL for Hulk hands, mouse only fit under TIP of Hulk fingers. No can READ EMAIL from mac or see GOOD HULK WEB SITES! THIS MAKE HULK MAD! Then plastic case SMASHES when Hulk turn it on, not good metal like Hulk’s AMSTRAD with OVERSIZE SERIAL KEYBOARD!
    Macintosh no have HULK VIDEO GAME me think so enyeweys. EVERY COMPUTER SHOULD HAV?E HULK VIDEO GAME, ME SMASH TANKS AND BIG, BAD MONSTERS! MONSTERS USE MACINTOSHES MAKE ME ANRGY!!!!
    HULK SMASH BAD APPLE! APPLE BAD!!! AAARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

  • Oh how the mac lusers love to preen their feathers.
    Look how pretty they are!
    Gee, I wish I had a mac so I could be smart like you! Maybe I could figure out these quadratic equations a little bit faster 🙁

    • > But until that, I AM still sceptic.
      Sceptic? Like, a sceptic tank? Full of sh… shtuff? Wait, that’s septic…
      Oh, skeptical! You must be a PC user…
      (It’s a joke, folks. Just a joke. The whole article’s not meant to be taken seriously, so don’t go taking me seriously.)

  • There is a major flaw in the author’s research:
    Mac computers cost a lot more than PC. This fact has many direct and indirect consequences. For instance, the Mac users might have in general higher revenues, which are highly related to education. Of course, education is highly related to written skills. The research should compare users with equivalent education to conclude anything meaningful. As of now, I think it means more about revenues related to written skills than Apple itself.
    If you dont believe this, try to do the same experiment with IBM high-end laptop forum with the one of Dell lower-end home desktop. Let me guess! IBMs users are more intelligent than the ones from Dell!

    • Yes, education is an important intervening variable – itself correlated with "smartness," but price isn’t. Nearly everyone thinks Macs cost more, but it isn’t true.
      <P>
      Apple’s product lifecycles take longer than PC cycles. Compare prices based on different points in the lifecycle and you can get odd results. Right now, for example, Apple’s Dual G5 workstation, fully loaded, is about $4,000 LESS than the nearest comparable PC: a Dell precision with two P4s. At the other end, compare a no brand PC with Linux from Walmart at $298 stripped and
      $799 with a 15" LCD, 256MB, or a Dell 2400 with a similar screen and a Windows/XP home license at that same $799 and you exactly match the price on Apple’s basic emac.
      <P>

      • Lifecycle: I agree.
        Product price comparison: I agree.
        But a consumer buying $298 PC at Wal-Mart will probably not buy the 15" LCD at 499$! This means that although Apple can justify its price, it does not offer a true low-end option. Again, my hypothesis is that people with low revenues will buy proportionally more PC than the ratio of people with high revenues. But even if it did sell true low-end products, what is Apples primary target market? I AM sure you know it too well! Do I need to explain where I AM going?
        Finally, we all know that Microsoft is everywhere, but is Apple represented in the same way? What if 75% of Apples users speak English as their mother tongue while this represents only 40% of Microsofts clients? I AM not saying the bottom line is wrong, but I do believe the analysis should have been more rigorous. Polling a few hundred persons, depending on the confidence interval needed, could have done this. By comparing pairs of people, one using Wintel and the other Apple, with similar education would have been perfect to really mean something. If this is done rigorously and the results are the same, I will start teasing people! But until that, I AM still sceptic.

        • You might be right about the price comparison, however uneducated people generally have a harder time laying out $1000 all at once, and they don’t do the research to know that a Mac (might) last them longer.

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