(Advantage Asia?) is a 180 degree turn from the previous chapters. The author switches from looking at kids facing the toughest of odds in getting effective education and a supportive environment for the enhancement of IQ, to the racial group most identified with brilliance in modern US education. Talking about Asian cognition is also a return to Nisbett’s scientific specialty as a cognitive/social psychologist.
Fortunately there is a great deal more scientific research on Asian success in America, following individuals and families in the generations since the change in US immigration laws in the mid-60s. For proponents of the “environmentalist” school of IQ development, this is a very important body of data. What’s the impact of parental IQ, academic achievement, occupational accomplishment and elevated SES on each generation of Asian kids?
Tying back to Nisbett’s research on Asian cognition (a focus on object relationships rather than object attributes), Asian children at the time they begin school may have average IQ scores or even slightly less that Caucasian kids. With each passing year, however, all average indicators for Asian kids begin to outpace the average numbers for white children. Higher IQs, greater academic achievement for a given IQ, greater occupational accomplishment for a given IQ and education. By the time post-secondary education is begun, the averages in IQ score are substantially different (in excess of 1 SD). With the industrialization of non-communist east Asia in the last half of the 20th century, this pattern of achievement has also extended to Asian kids there.
In the US, it’s clear that a pattern of “over-accomplishment” and the re-inforcing effect of having high SES parents (with higher average IQs) is strongly influencing the performance of Asian kids. In the “sweat versus brains” competition, it’s no surprise that “sweat and brains” turns out to be the most powerful combination of all.
Nisbett can turn to his research (with Asian colleagues) in Asia itself to get some hints on why education and persistence are so valued amongst Asian immigrants to America in the last two or three generations. In Asia, the sheer number of days of school has an impact on achievement. Working harder for more hours, on more days (especially in math) naturally leads to better performance on IQ tests and academic knowledge tests. Supplementary tutoring is common, almost a given, in countries like Japan.
Asian families play a major role in this over-achievement, emphasizing academic achievement as a contributor to family success and the child as a representative of the family, which (according to the research Nisbett outlines earlier) powerfully reinforces IQ scores. The family encourages and supports the child’s commitment to overcoming difficulties during study.
“Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And Asians are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.” p.159
The author takes a minor detour to talk about the distinctions between the Eastern and Western understanding of the nature of the “individual” and the individual’s relationship to family and society.
“These East-West differences go back at least twenty-five hundred years to the time of Confucius and the ancient Greeks.” p. 160
“[W]e might expect Westerners to be more likely to emphasize rules, categories, and logic, and Easterners to be more likely to emphasize relationships and dialectical reasoning. And, in fact, my coworkers and I find this to be the case.” p.166
These Western habits of mind were all necessary for the foundation of science. By setting out explicit models of the way the world works … with pass/fail attributes … Western science sets itself up for the unexpected and surprising. Reconciling these surprises is how scientific theory moves forward. In many ways, one might say that science is a set of habits designed to overcome the biases of group consensus or confirmation bias which do so much to overlook or undervalue surprising information. Western mental habits and institutions had to be introduced as a set to east Asia in the 19th century. A fascinating story of this process is reflected in the life of Japanese scholar Yukichi Fukuzawa who literally had to “write the book” on being Western for a Japanese audience and introducing many very strange ideas such as public speaking, logical argument, and universities to a bewildered audience. This East-West transition, and Fukuzawa’s role, is ably covered in Prof. Alan Macfarlane’s book The Making of the Modern World.
Nisbett describes the two thinking styles as holistic vs. analytic. and takes some time to walk through his research on the practical implications of these two
“My coworkers and I showed that Americans will sometimes judge a given plausible proposition to be more likely to be true if it is contradicted by a less plausible proposition than if it is not contradicted. The Americans assume that if there is an apparent contradiction between two propositions, the more plausible one must be true and the less plausible one must be false. Asians make the opposite error of judging a relatively implausible proposition to be more likely to be true if it is contradicted by a more plausible proposition than if it is not contradicted — because they are motivated to find truth in both of two opposing propositions.” p.167
For Asian students in America, however, they have the benefit of an educational system that encourages fluid intelligence and analytical skill (rather than memorization) and tests for it. They (or their parents/grand-parents) been selected for higher IQ during the immigration process, and their family attitudes (and higher family SES since the 1960s) have given them a head-start when they begin formal education. Every small genetic, social, and environmental advantage seems to work in their favour.
The result is several generations of Asian-Americans who are successful in the professions wildly out of proportion with their representation in the general population. For Asian kids educated in Asia, however, some hurdles remain. The “Asian engineers versus Western scientists” debate is borne out to some degree by the Asian representation amongst Nobel prize winners (versus Asians who live or were largely educated in the West). For the social sciences especially, scholars debate fiercely over the potential for unique Asian contributions to scholarship in coming years:
- Miller, G. F. (2006). The Asian future of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 107-119.
- Kanazawa, Satoshi. (2006). No, It Ain’t Gonna Be Like That. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 120-128.
Nisbett himself notes that his Asian graduate students (distinct, I’m assuming from his Asian-American graduate students) find the standard rhetorical form of scientific argumentation the last thing to be picked up in their post-secondary education.
A final comment of my own. The best summary of the difference between Western and Eastern approaches to science and technology, accommodating the latest scholarship, is an article called King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis and The History of Technology by economic historian Joel Mokyr (found in Tetlock et al.’s Unmaking the West). Expanding on material from his book Gifts of Athena — cb review, Mokyr notes that it is in the constant interaction between “savants” and “artisans” that the foundations of scientific thinking and scientific methods get established. In the East, while meritocracy existed for the civil service, the scholars who pondered the nature of the world were never socially engaged with the folks who made things. Without the friction of theory and practice, unexpected and uncontrolled breakthroughs in technology were never exploited.
(People of the Book) is a chapter on the other ethnic group in America is that considered very smart, at least by reputation. The average IQ score of Ashkenazi Jews is roughly 1 SD (10-15 points) higher than the Caucasian average score. While in day-to-day terms this difference between populations is minor … on the top end (or right side) of the IQ curve, it means that IQs with genius level (145-ish) are about 10 times more likely amongst the Ashkenazi. When examining the Nobel Prizes or Ivy League admissions, the Ashkenazi are over-represented even by the standards one would expect extrapolating from IQ and relative population size. The Sephardic Jews, meanwhile, appear to have average IQ scores virtually the same as Caucasians.
Nisbett outlines five potential reasons for the superior IQ of the Ashkenazi:
- persecution theory – the Ashkenazi have been generally selected for intelligence. “Only the smart survive”
- Babylonian captivity – the elite of Jewish culture were transported to Babylon and when they returned to Israel the average IQ had been dramatically increased. Those who remained behind ceased to practice Jewish culture.
- “marry the scholar” – successful Jews married their daughters to the most scholarly and intelligent in society.
- literacy – religiously prescribed literacy created a society which encouraged the skills measured by IQ.
- occupational pressure – Persecution restricted Jews to occupations that demanded and rewarded high intelligence.
By and large, Nisbett is unconvinced by any of these reasons. They may well be supportive of Ashkenazi intelligence and accomplishment but for various reasons they offer no conclusive answer to the question of why this particular population has a higher average IQ. The author does mention more controversial genetic information which ties Ashkenazi intelligence to higher sphingolipid formation in nerve sheaths. The associated genetic diseases found in Ashkenazi which involve faulty sphingolipid storage (Tay-Sachs, Niemann-Pick, Gaucher’s disease) hint that there might be a recessive gene at work … one copy leading to increased intelligence, two copies leading to serious disease. There are many unresolved questions with the research, however, which simply add the genetic explanation to the long list of other potential reasons which aren’t terribly conclusive.
Nisbett turns instead to a section on the waxing and waning of reputed intelligence amongst many European populations. The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal were instrumental in the transmission of much of the literature of Antiquity into medieval life. When expelled from the Iberian peninsula, many went to the Netherlands where they took part in an explosion of commercial and scholarly activity. Today, their average IQ is largely indistinguishable from Caucasian averages. Similarly no one would have predicted that the northern Italians would suddenly dominate the new wave of quantification that swept technology, art, music and commerce between 1275 and 1325 (cf. cb review of Crosby’s The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 ). Yet the focus of scientific development in subsequent centuries shifted north and west in Europe. No one would have predicted the “Athens of the North” during the 18th century in Edinburgh and Glasgow, yet much of our modern world is shaped by the Scottish intellectuals such as Adam Smith, David Hume, and Lord Kelvin. Scotland has not recovered its intellectual dominance since.
Nisbett notes that there is a major North-South divergence in American IQ scores and this may well support his “environmentalist” perspective on IQ growth and sustainment for we know that Americans have been relentlessly sorting themselves by geography since the 1960s … poorer, whiter, more fertile, and less educated to the “flyover states.” The best plain-language book on the subject is Bill Bishop’s Big Sort which I’m hoping to review sometime later this year.
Perhaps, as with Asian IQ scores and accomplishment, we can look to Ashkenazi culture for possible sources of excellence. Here, Nisbett seems pretty confident that the focus of Jewish life (or families where one parent is Jewish) reinforces the habits and skills that show up in intelligence, intellectual life, and achievement more generally. There are certainly plenty of anecdotes to support this perspective. Placing an emphasis on education and academic achievement, and the responsibility of the child to make the family proud, matched with a leveraging of minor biological selective forces across generations probably goes a long way to explaining Jewish success. Over-achievement seems a more likely explanation for the out-sized impact of the Ashkenazi rather than depending purely on an inherent IQ advantage .
(Raising your child’s intelligence … and your own) collates the results of research described in earlier chapters to answer the question “what about me and mine?”. Anyone caught reading Professor Nesbitt’s book, or for that matter reading chicagoboyz, already falls into two unique categories: adults who read non-fiction and adults interested in intelligence and education. As a result, much of what the author outlines in this chapter he knows is the “obvious” … talk to your children, include them in adult conversations, read to and with them, encourage them without flattering them, and give them a low-stress environment in which to grow.
Some of his suggestions are less obvious but no less sensible. Ensure that their after-school and summer-time activities continue the intellectual stimulation of school. Encourage them to form peer groups that also have intellectual interests. Center your attention on building their ability to categorize, compare, analyze and evaluate. Unfortunately, the author notes that most of these activities correlate well with increased IQ but the data on causality is shaky. And it gets even more speculative for programs/music that claim to stimulate the intellectual growth of infants.
There do appear to be some strong correlations between larger babies and smarter adults. Pregnant women can increase the size of their babies with exercise and adults can maintain IQ by regular strength training and cardiac exercise. Breast-feeding for up to 9 months seems to add about six IQ points on average to children.
There are activities that will improve fluid intelligence (ability to solve novel problems without learned rules or concepts) for children and adults. Exercises which work with anticipation, stimulus discrimination, conflict resolution, and inhibition-control have been studied. Working memory and attention control exercises seem to help with ADHD children. Even certain kinds of meditation have been found helpful in increasing IQ scores on tests least dependent on specific knowledge (e.g Raven Progressive Matrices).
Apparently children with above-average self-control have higher intelligence, more academic achievement irrespective of intelligence. Unfortunately the research hasn’t yet confirmed particular methods for increasing self-control in children. Whether mental habits or parental models can make a sustained difference is under investigation.
In light of the research described earlier in the book, ensuring that children actually know that IQ changes with age and education is an important first step to counter school-yard misinformation, as is the emphasis on hard work and the idea that “IQ is under their control.” Praise for hard work seems to keep children more persistent in the face of difficult tasks as opposed to praise for their intelligence. Nisbett recommends avoiding making “contracts” with a child which inevitable turns play into work. As for supplemental education, it’s clear that there is very good research on effective tutoring methods which both parents and tutors can put to use.
For schooling, chapter 4 outlined a few major do’s and dont’s. Avoid rookie teachers. Try to ensure rewards for good teaching (which may mean working around teachers’ unions). Stick to methods confirmed by the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. Focus on teacher quality rather than the number of certificates or degrees that the teacher has. Encourage teacher-teacher mentoring to build actual teaching skills.
The epilogue of Intelligence summarizes the material from the earlier chapters … so it’s much like the synopsis I’ve written above, though more elegantly done! Best to let the author speak for himself a little.
“There is no fixed value for the heritability of intelligence. It differs from one population in another set of circumstances, to another population in another set of circumstances. If the environment is highly favourable to the growth of intelligence, then the heritability of intelligence is indeed fairly high — perhaps as high as 70 percent. This is the situation that exists for the upper middle class in developed countries.” p.193
” At the limiting extreme of identical environments for everyone in a given group, the only factor that can influence differences in intelligence is genetics. The upper middle class comes close enough to that situation that heredity for that group can be very important in determining differences in intelligence.
But if the environment is highly variable — differing greatly between individual families — then the environment is going to play the major role in differences in intelligence between individuals. And this is the situation for the poor.” p. 194
“Why have the [IQ] gains occurred? It is simple at base: the schools and the culture have changed radically in such a way as to affect scores on many of the subtests of IQ tests. Parents and schools increasingly teach children how to categorize objects and events in taxonomic terms suitable for scientific analysis. The media teach children the ways of the world — why policemen wear uniforms, why street addresses are numbered in order, and why people pay taxes — resulting in higher scores on comprehension subtests of IQ tests. Improvements on the Raven matrices — and in the fluid intelligence underlying performance on it — can be traced at least in part to the ever-more geometric and analytic ways of teaching arithmetic over recent decades, and possibly in part to computer games. A few years ago McDonald’s was including in its Happy Meals mazes that were more difficult than the mazes in an IQ test for gifted children!
And there there is the fact that people are receiving a lot more education than ever before. In a century the mean number of years of schooling has gone from seven to fourteen.” p.194-195
Having set the stage for his book by weakening the causal link between genetics and IQ, the author has walked through the various influences which clearly do have an impact on intelligence … home life, socioeconomic status, and the schools. And he turns to the over-achievers amongst America’s ethnic groups to get a different but supplemental argument for the role of SES and culture in developing IQ and propelling occupational accomplishment.
While race has no role in IQ across populations, it’s clear that genetics, family circumstances and primary education can be very influential (in combination) on individual IQ. There are activities that make us smarter and lifestyles and surroundings that keep us smarter. And while it may be easy to claim that IQ isn’t measuring “everything” about a person, it’s also true that it clearly is measuring something important and useful about a person’s skills. People can accomplish wonderful things without benefit of high IQ but the analytical skills measured by IQ can be put to use in a vast array of academic and occupational settings.
While it’s unrealistic to expect schools to shoulder the entire burden for eliminating the differences in IQ and academic achievement between the races (à la No Child Left Behind mandates), it’s clear that there’s enough research to confirm that intensive early childhood education tied to home visitations can yield huge immediate gains in IQ. Sustained patterns of long-term academic achievement and occupational attainment can be initiated … irrespective of measured IQ.
Belief that one is in control of one’s IQ is a start, but it doesn’t do the work necessary to grow and sustain IQ.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I began reading it primarily on the strength of the author’s previous work rather than from any particular interest in primary/secondary education. Nonetheless, the more I read the more interesting the informatin became. This book really shines in the quality of the writing and the use of summaries and reminders to keep the reader on-track.
Intelligenceintroduces the earlier research on IQ and race, and a great deal that is appalling about modern educational infrastructure and associated effectiveness research. The book reviews quite a range of academic literature on the role of intelligence in the real world, and it teases apart fundamental flaws in past research that have largely gone un-examined in the last few decades.
Culture matters … indeed, the dust jacket of the book has a little graphic annotation that says “Why Schools and Cultures Count.” Addressing the cultural angle is not very popular and I wonder if that might work against this book finding a wider readership. Culture is a contentious word to use in economics and politics (cf. the cb review of Harrison’s book on the “Central Liberal Truth” or Lewis’ book on the Power of Productivity). While Professor Nisbett largely avoids reflexive Bush-bashing (apart from a wee bit of snark re: the No Child Left Behind Act), he is clearly unhappy with the status quo. Both political parties have been co-conspirators in inadvertently maintaining the current race- and SES-based distinctions in IQ, academic achievement, and occupational accomplishment. Can we expect any notable change in education policy now that Democrats control both the White House and Congress? I suspect not.
Democrats are content to shovel more money into school systems that are locked into mediocrity by teacher’s unions, administrative overhead, and unexamined educational principles. But Intelligence suggests that more money, in and of itself, is clearly not a solution. Ignoring the role of family life and parenting styles in the development of IQ is the “dirty little secret” of modern policy-making. The author also makes the point that scientific study of educational effectiveness has itself been largely undeveloped.
Republicans, on the other hand, are likely afraid of doing much more than fiddling with curricula for fear of being called “racists.” They are content, I think, with setting educational expectations (the 3Rs) for school populations that are culturally ill-prepared to take full advantage of particular content or teaching method, no matter how worthy. These habits, from Left and Right, allow implicit assumptions and popular biases about the inherent genetic capacities of American blacks, Asians, and Jews to be comfortably reinforced … much to the long-term detriment of the country. Hopefully Intelligence will re-open the discussion about the talents most individuals need in the modern world. IQ is a very useful proxy for judging whether children are getting the right introduction to the skills and habits they require. Freed from its genetic predetermination, an IQ score can be a useful gauge for skills acquisition. Effective testing can be conducted at a very early age. Does anyone really want to know, year by year, how the school system is doing?
Who would be an ideal reader for this book?
Parents will find a handy checklist. There are tips for maximizing a child’s intelligence, their schooling, and future career opportunities with ideas for reading, tutoring, language use, and parenting strategies. For people with limited budgets or time, borrowing a copy of the book from the local public library and skimming key chapters might be adequate. Incidentally, I would definitely recommend that every public library have a copy of this book. It is an excellent and very approachable reference work.
Those with direct responsibility for public education will get a thorough and sobering briefing on how off-track things have gotten … and how poorly prepared current social science is to contribute to practical solutions. Those in charge of political policies will have less of an excuse for the continued “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward discussions of race, IQ, and accomplishment. Policy wonks, on the other hand, now have an excellent introduction to the literature on the whole question of heredity versus environment (as it relates to IQ). For social scientists generally, there’s an indictment of educational research, and some useful discussions on the foundations of ethnic over-achievement.
Unfortunately, the reader is also introduced to evidence for a major bifurcation in the social and cultural environments of America generally, and black America more specifically. Each generation of the black middle class is rapidly increasing its average IQ and providing the home environment (generation-over-generation) that is the necessary foundation for IQ, academic achievement, and occupational success. Each passing year will bring that average closer to white America. In parallel, each generation of lower-class black America (along with its white compatriots) are systematically undermining the capacity of their children to take full advantage of any educational and occupational opportunities. There’s no reason to think that this separation of the SES groups (irrespective of race) will not continue.
When matched by the 40-year geographic, political, and sociological separation underway by the American electorate (cf. Big Sort — cb review pending), the foundations for a future “have” and “have-not” society are in place. America is “pouring a lot of concrete,” so to speak. Republicans need to be as worried as Democrats by the contents of Intelligence. Any social trend that separates one population more than another from the tools and attitudes needed to increase IQ scores is a long-term problem. Whether it’s years of schooling or attitudes toward science, middle America needs to recommit itself to a “brains and sweat” approach. Nisbett’s book has shown that Asian- and Jewish-Americans are “doubling-down” on the skill sets most associated with higher socioeconomic status. That’s also unlikely to change any time soon.
Intelligence would make a fine gift to any high school student active in debating/forensics. There are topics enough for years of podium battles in this book. An undergraduate student with a psychology, education, or sociology major would enjoy this book very much and find a great deal of interest in it. Nisbett’s review of psychological and educational research is a casebook on understanding how not to do social science. Anyone interested in social psychology, education, or social policy, either professionally or generally, should definitely give this well-written book a careful read. Teachers and school board members, however, should park a copy of Intelligenceon the shelf by their computer, consult it regularly, and think about it constantly!
While the potential readership for this book is substantial, getting anyone to act upon its insights is another matter entirely. I am pessimistic that the professor’s well-meaning (often passionate) suggestions on balancing the IQ playing field will ever see the light of day. The focus in American governance has shifted recently to health care and the restoration of economic growth and away from education. Massive budget deficits and public debt loads stretch to the horizon. The very states most likely to take a pro-active role in education (coloured Blue) are now teetering in various stages of bankruptcy. At this point in American history, no one has the incentive to take the information from this book and translate it into social programs. The fact that Intelligence so often quoted useful research from the 60s and 70s (subsequently ignored) seems to suggest that the family-by-family approach to IQ improvement is a dead letter.
I came away from the book drawing the conclusion that “nothing succeeds like success” and thanking my lucky stars that I was born to parents who came out of the hyper-literate Scotch Presbyterian culture (though raised as rural poor). Inadvertently, they inherited the parenting attitudes that moved literally all my cousins from the working class to the professions in a single generation. From parents who were hardscrabble farm kids to children who were doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers, broadcast personalities, and federal bureaucrats. Lucky, lucky me.
Lucky also, for that matter, to be any reader of chicagoboyz. Some combination of family, friends, schooling, and inherent abilities gave us the appetite for ongoing intellectual challenge outside the demands of family and work life. That’s a great gift that many are unlikely to receive, as this book highlights.
If environment and culture are major contributors to the formation of IQ (childhood and otherwise), then IQ will probably continue to be a reflection and reinforcement of socioeconomic status and family traditions. The analytical and interpretative skills that are identified by IQ tests are precisely the abilities being demanded in the global workplace. The issues and insights about IQ raised by Professor Nisbett’s book aren’t going away any time soon.
“What to do with the poor?” is an ancient and perennial social question. The educational systems of the early 20th century, unrepentant and unapologetic in their desire to create uniform citizens through the public or Catholic school systems, once asked “what to do to the poor?”. Those days of enculturation are gone, however, and the generations of the middle class they “manufactured” are passing away.
In a world where smarts and hard work will still lead to broad success, “what to do to the poor?” returns as a big and politically vexing question. How can one provide the tools of IQ improvement and economic opportunity to new generations of students and citizens in a “multicultural” society? As Intelligence notes, the schools are merely one element in establishing and expanding IQ. This book suggests that a lot more people are going to have to tell the truth about intelligence before improvements, outside of fortunate cultural sub-groups, are going to extend across the American population as a whole.
Intelligence is highly recommended. I fully expect it to stand alone for some years as the “go-to” book on this topic. Though an unlikely book for “summer beach reading,” it deals with fascinating and important matters. It’ll permanently change the way you think about education and home life.