Intelligence and How to Get it: Why Schools and Cultures Count Paperback – 19 Mar 2010
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A hugely important analysis of the determinants of IQ. . . . A must-read. --Daniel Osherson, professor of psychology, Princeton University"
Nisbett argues that a variety of social, cultural, and economic factors can significantly affect a child s IQ, and suggests ways to improve intelligence scores, as well as grades, by manipulating those factors."
About the Author
Richard E. Nisbett is Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and Research Professor at Michigan's Institute for Social Research. He has taught courses in social psychology, cultural psychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology. His research focuses on how people from different cultures think, perceive, feel, and act in different ways. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association and the William James Fellow Award of the American Psychological Society and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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Nisbett acknowledges the solid consensus among expert opinion: the existence of intelligence as a meaningful human trait; many of the population group differences in achievement now found internationally; the heritability of IQ within the White population and its relation to social class; the relation between IQ test scores and MRI-brain size relations; and the neurophysiological reaction time correlates of intelligence (measured in milliseconds).
Also, discussions of brain exercises to temporarily improve working memory like n-back are interesting.
Downside - Omissions and distortions
Unfortunately, Nisbett also out to show that hereditary factors are overplayed while relying on unconvincing research. Worse, there is an avoidance of unwelcome evidence.
For instance, he relies on the work of Eric Turkheimer who studied children who were aged 7 and less. This is long before the shared environmental component vanishes.
This type of error is frequent throughout Nisbett's book: he often "proves" that environment matters more to IQ than previously thought by citing studies of young children. It is only when we reach adulthood that the full effect of our hereditary factors occurs, so estimates of the heritability of intelligence ought to be based on adult IQ scores.
Nisbett claims that the "Flynn effect," or secular gains in IQ across the industrialized world, proves that people are becoming more intelligent and that intelligence is substantially more dependent on environment than previously believed. However, the increases have been on certain parts of the tests. For instance, visuo-spatial logic has improved considerably but vocabulary and math have shown little improvement.Read more ›
after you read this book and someone calls you dumb, you can recite the 5 main principles of what defines intelligence and nerd the crap out of them.
He shows that cultural differences between groups with the same ethnicity/gene-pool (eg British-white-working-class and British-white-middle-class) results in significant differences in school results and achievement.
The message is optimistic: we can all achieve more than we anticipated; we should not label out children or students. Put together with Carol Dweck's work in Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential, Matthew Syed's 'Bounce', Daniel Coyle's 'Talent Code' and a dozen other publications we can, perhaps, forgive the over-enthusiastic claims in the book.
The brain-science behind plasticity is explained in my guide:How Brains Learn
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Chapter 4 talks about school as an environment and the main actionable comment is don't let your kid have a rookie teacher.
Chapter 7 talks about how poverty conditions greatly hurt IQ and this information will be quite important for people with a policy interest.
One of the main points of Chapters 4 and 7 is that certain computer-based programs are highly effective at improving IQ for a fairly low price.
Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the disproportionate success of Asian-American and Jewish people. Chapter 8 declares that Asians have normal IQ scores, but they work so hard that they effectively add (e.g. 15 points of) IQ and that makes a huge difference. There is a discussion of differences in Asian and American thinking styles that concludes Asians make good engineers and Americans make good scientists.
Chapter 9 says that Ashkenazi Jewish people *might* actually have a small genetic advantage due to brain anatomy but there is not enough evidence to prove that for sure; Nisbett asserts that, like Asian households, Jewish households emphasize hard work on studying, and this is probably an important reason for their relative success.
Far from endorsing any particular culture or race, Nesbitt points out that there were moments in history when many different cultures - Ancient Arabs, Spanish people, English people, Chinese scholars, etc. - became the most prolific in the world at intellectual achievement. This adds fuel to his point that culture matters.
Overall, Nisbett makes a powerful argument that HARD WORK significantly affects intelligence and that culture, family, schooling and other environmental factors greatly affect hard work and thus can determine intelligence. Therefore, he feels we should not give up any group, because enough of intelligence (or at least +/- 15 points of IQ plus a bunch of inangibles like self-discipline and practical intelligence) is determined by our environment that how we treat people will make a substantial difference in their ultimate success.
Chapter 10 finally gets to parenting and what you can do to improve the intelligence of your child, which comes down to: praising their hard work! Plus a bunch of minor suggestions, which you can read for yourself.
If you have read Malcom Gladwell's Outliers recently as I did (also on my Kindle!), the framework here is completely consistent with his idea: working longer and harder than average is essential to being more successful than average.
If you have not read Outiers yet, then go read it as it is a lot more fun than this book. If you have read Outliers but worried that it lacked academic rigor, then this book should interest you greatly. And if you think that people are either born smart or not, then this book will convince you that how you treat kids will still make a big difference to their future success.
One clear, but all too typical, error the author makes occurs in his discussion of "stereotype threat," the idea that when their race is made salient, blacks perform worse on IQ and achievement tests because they are afraid of confirming a stereotype. Nisbett asserts that when a test is presented as a puzzle, instead of as a test of intelligence, "black and whites do equally well on the test" ( p.95). This has become the typical take on Claude Steele's and Joshua Aronson original research. What has been lost over the years of interpretation and commentary since the research was done in the mid-1990s, however, is that the Stanford black and white sophomores involved in the study (which involved taking a few questions drawn from the GRE)where matched for their SAT scores they got before entering Stanford. Given the mountain of research now done, we know that stereotype threat is real, and it is possible that it accounts for up to 1/5th of the achievement gap on each of the three sections of the SAT (a standard deviation on each of the three tests). Nonetheless, we also know that most of the cause of the difference between blacks and whites on IQ and achievement tests has nothing to do with stereotype threat. Nisbett's error is shockingly common among even great social psychologists and Claude Steele has helped promote this misconception by what seems to be conscience distortion of his actual findings in accounts of his work in popular magazines like The Atlantic.
Finally, I will note that in the second to last chapter of the book, the author describes the means by which individuals can raise their own and their children's IQs. What he says is interesting enough but he fails to discuss the single most important thing that parents can do for their children--get married and stay married. Now, he does discuss the issue earlier in the book (p. 101), but he fails in the second to last chapter to mention the fact, for example, that Chinese- and Japanese-Americans have an out-of-wedlock birth rate a third that of whites (and 1/8th that of blacks) and they are half as likely to divorce (and a third as likely as blacks). Overall, those groups in the US with the lowest out-of-wedlock birth rates and divorce rates (Asians and Jews) have the highest average IQ, and those with the highest such rates, have the lowest average IQ. The same is true of household income. As Nisbett notes, black households earn 67% of white households but this difference is mainly because black households are much more likely to be single-parent households (which overall earn only 42% of married couple households). Similarly, Japanese-, Chinese-, Filipino- and Indian-American households earn 20 to 30 percent more than white households because they are significantly more likely than white households to have two parents. So, regarding African-Americans, as long as fewer than 40% of African-American children are living with their biological fathers, no matter what else is done, there will be no substantial improvement in black average IQ. For example, Nisbett notes that African-American women are now twice as likely to go to college as African-American males, but what he fails to note is that when one compares African-American boys and girls whose biological parents are married, the boys are as likely to go to college as their sisters. The aggregate difference is exclusively a function of what is going on in single-parent households. In such households girls are vastly more likely to go to college than their brothers. (Could this surprise anyone?) As a Cornell researcher discovered a few years ago, 90 percent of students at the 50 most selective colleges and universities in the US come from intact households. We are as Andrew Hacker says, Two Nations, but the two Nations are not black and white, as Hacker says. We are a nation of the fathered and the fatherless. Until we acknowledge and address that fact, school changes and the like will have no real effect on the intellectual and achievement differences among different groups in the US. We must acknowledge and do something about the elephant in the room.
Brad Lowell Stone
Another major element of the book is a call for bringing scientific rigor to education. Rigorous controlled experiments, research that takes our knowledge of IQ into account, genetics-aware studies such as Eric Turkheimer's (which measure environmental effects on phenomena such as substance abuse using twins to control for genetic effects), and clear thinking have the potential to greatly improve the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of education and improve cognition. Fear of hereditarian views and associations with racism often hinder educational policymakers from taking our scientific knowledge of IQ into account, with negative effects on educational quality, and we may hope that this text will help to diminish that stigma and help to drive further improvements in cognitive ability.
At a higher level, the book is in some ways an ode to the randomized experiment, taking a strong stand against regressions that are helpless to identify causality and easily manipulable by motivated researchers. A reader gets the sense of a smart and honest empirical scientist who is eager to have questions resolved by hard evidence, and ready to change his mind in accord with those experiments, even when he comes to the table with strongly held initial views on a controversial topic of policy importance. This is something we need to see more of in scientific and policy debates and I give this book my strong recommendation. If you enjoy this book, I would suggest a follow-up with James Flynn's "What is Intelligence?" and Arthur Jensen's "The G-factor."
I will discuss the individual chapters below:
Chapter 1 provides a brief introductory account of IQ, and its importance for life outcomes, while mentioning other important traits such as motivation and self-control. It is quite satisfactory and puts IQ in context, without diminishing its role or getting embroiled in terminological disputes over the description of other abilities or discussion of their measurement.
Chapter 2 attempts to place the high heritability of IQ scores among middle class families (as much as 70-80% of variation in IQ can be explained by genetics within that group) into context, noting that adoptive households tend to be relatively good environments for children (confirmed by across-the-board boosts in IQ for adopted children, although these generally fade with time), and this consistently high quality means that variation in genetics plays a greater relative role. He also cites Turkheimer's research finding lower heritability of IQ among famlies with lower socioeconomic status.
Chapter 3 reviews the literature on the IQ-increasing effects of education, drawing on natural experiments of differential phase-in of education, or disruption due to strikes and disturbances. It is undeniable that schooling increases IQ relative to its absence, and these gains can be lasting. A discussion of the Flynn Effect, the secular increase in IQ scores over the last half century and more, follows James Flynn's "What is Intelligence?" and emphasizes that the particular IQ subtest scores that have increased cover skills that modern education and entertainment place much more emphasis on than in the past. One particularly devastating application is to the critique of 'culture-fair' nonverbal tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices. These tests, which require subjects to identify patterns in abstract shapes, have shown extremely high culturally-driven increases over time, but they are also used extensively by researchers such as Lynn and Vanhanen to estimate developing country IQ levels. This application is typically defended along the lines that the within-country correlations of life outcomes and Raven scores are strong, but such correlations would not be disrupted by an across-the-board change such as the Flynn Effect (and have not been disrupted in rich countries) or its absence, and these tests are clearly 'culture-unfair.'
Chapter 4 covers the state of educational research, and is one of the best parts of the book, although the findings have been discussed elsewhere. Nisbett urges a scientific approach to educational research and policy, relying on randomized experiments, and critiques the ludicrous excesses of schools of education that reject the experimental method. Reviewing the research on funding levels, teacher quality, and class size, he rejects common myths and focuses on evidence. For instance, teacher quality matters quite a lot for student achievement, but it is not strongly related to seniority after the first two years or to Master's degrees, the criteria according to which most union contracts allocate raises. Instead, direct measurements of student improvement are the best predictors of future performance. Federal policy, the D.C. school system under Mayor Fenty and Michelle Rhee, and the Gates Foundation are all moving in this direction, and I hope that the new wave of experimentally-informed educational practices is able to displace ineffective policies and their political support.
Chapter 5 reviews the large differences in parenting between social classes, e.g. the number of words upper middle class parents speak to their children is much greater than the number spoken by lower class parents, and upper class parents are more encouraging of thought by their children. These results are confounded by genetics, which may simultaneously affect parenting style and child behavior, but they are very interesting nonetheless, and the gains of children raised in adoptive households and some parenting interventions suggest that they do have some causal importance. Importantly, such parenting practices do not change instantly when offspring rise into the middle class, which may be important in explaining the poor test performance of the children of first-generation middle class families of all groups.
Chapter 6 addresses the IQ gap between blacks and whites, arguing for a genetic contribution of zero, and must be read in tandem with Appendix 2, which provides more detailed arguments. Nisbett discusses a substantial partial closing of the IQ gap among children over the last 50 years, and corresponding improvements in school achievement. These gains weaken among teenagers and further among adults, but even on their own they represent a major advance, and suggest that efforts like KIPP could go much further.
Nisbett places a particular focus on evidence from European admixture in African-Americans (on average about 20%). For instance, he notes that skin color, facial features, and blood groups show only tiny correlations with IQ. These arguments turn out not to work because of the sample sizes and the genetics of those traits, but a similar analysis with DNA ancestry testing should now be feasible. More persuasively, Nisbett reviews the mixed evidence from studies of adopted children with one or two black parents. Each of the several studies has confounding effects at play, such as lack of parental IQ information, but collectively they leave it in doubt whether biracial children really do show an advantage over children with two black parents, and pose a challenge for hereditarians selectively focusing on the one (of three) major study showing an advantage for biracial children.
Nisbett presents a number of other lines of argument, with one particularly telling point being the fact that that among African-Americans women predominate in the upper IQ echelons, while among whites the pattern is reversed, and I expect that they will indeed shift scientific opinion towards a lower estimate of the importance of genetics. At the least, we should be confident that environmental interventions, provided that they are validated by randomized trials, can further increase black IQ and that fatalism is mistaken.
Chapter 7 discusses IQ-boosting programs such as the Perry Preschool Program, the Milwaukee Project, and the Abecedarian Program. Overall, there are many disappointing results and some gems, but those gems have shown in randomized experiments that they produce benefits that exceed their costs. IQ gains are often temporary, but a gain that lasts for several years after a program enables increased academic achievement and learning during that time (with lasting benefits), and some gains are significantly more long-lived. More importantly, life outcomes such as employment, use of public assistance, and crime can be dramatically affected. The Obama administration has promised to and is likely to roll out extensive programs along these lines, but the key to success will be rigorous and continuous evaluations that are taken into account in expanding some programs and paring back others.
Chapter 8 covers the high achievement of people of Northeast Asian descent (Japanese, Chinese, Korean). Nisbett correctly emphasizes that regardless of whether or not there is a moderate IQ advantage for these populations, their educational achievements are greatly superior to what would be predicted from IQ alone. Increased conscientiousness due to cultural values of duty to family, a belief in the importance of hard work relative to innate ability, and a tradition of education are cited as explanations for the difference in motivation. One point I would raise here is that cultural environment may also have selected for genetic variations affecting personality. Indeed, a polymorphism at the DRD4 locus associated with ADHD and impulsivity is found in very different regional proportions (it is high in countries recently populated by immigrants, for example) has been found to be extremely scarce in China. A unified stable state living very close to Malthusian margins for many centuries does seem potentially conducive to the evolution of increased conscientiousness among subsistence farmers.
Chapter 9 discusses the high IQ and intellectual achievements of Ashkenazi Jews. With respect to the latter, Nisbett rightly notes that there is strong variation in regional intellectual achievement independently of IQ, e.g. the lack of scientific advance from Texans (even limited to non-Hispanic whites). He discusses various accounts of Ashkenazi intelligence, most importantly the evolutionary biology approach of Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending. Those researchers use statistical analysis to argue that the clustering of Ashkenazi diseases that are linked to increased dendrite growth, myelin in the brain, or increased IQ is vanishingly unlikely unless the Ashkenazim were subject to recent selection, likely due to the extended period when the majority were in finance or related occupations and financial success was strongly associated with numbers of surviving children.
Nisbett thinks that this theory is plausible, although its prediction of increased IQ in heterozygotes for the recessive diseases has not yet been tested, but argues correctly that Jewish achievement exceeds what would be predicted from IQ alone. However, selection for success in moneylending and professional occupations would almost certainly select for self-control and low time preference as well as IQ, so evolutionary considerations may explain more of Ashkenazi success than the chapter suggests. Further genetic differences would support cultural differences: if a high fraction of one's relatives and peers are more intelligent and self-disciplined, that will foster a culture of intellectualism and achievement that will multiply the initial difference. Regardless of the exact causes, they should be studied to determine how to duplicate them elsewhere (whether through education or pharmacology/gene therapy).
Chapter 10 concludes the book with discussion of what parents can do to help cultivate their children's intelligence in a handy presentation that pays attention to relevant caveats and limits of our knowledge. A brief epilogue summarize the main claims of the book and pronounces strong hereditarianism overthrown.
Richard Nisbett's inventive cover says it all: DNA (inherited characteristics) as a ladder to build intelligence on and beyond, rather than as a cage to limit intelligence. With this end in mind, the book includes some marvellously balanced accounts of relevant research and is extremely helpful in overturning the more simplistic interpretations. Nisbett is course not arguing that intelligence is not significantly inherited, just that environmental factors are equally important and recently neglected in much research commentary and policy advocacy. And also environmental factors are what we can strongly influence.
Advocates of the high heritability of intelligence are pessimists and the massive increase in intelligence of the last 50 years across most countries studied by Flynn et al. as Nisbett shows puts a major set of counter data in the way of their perspective. Nisbett is also adept at puncturing the racist use of differential IQ scores between white and black population. This differential is falling dramatically just as average scores also increase.
Among the most interesting insights he provides are those into the identical twins reared apart data. He shows that at the nub of so much misinterpretation is neglect of the simple idea that if two variables determine something and one of the variables is kept roughly stable, then all of the variation is caused by one variable. So if data on identical twins reared apart show 80% of the variation in their intelligence is inherited, you do need to know how varied their backgrounds are. And the answer is probably not very varied. Indeed Nisbett goes on to indicate studies that show upper middle class children having perhaps 70% inherited intelligence, because how they are all raised in very driven, standardized ways, and the top schools are all doing similar things. While children in the lowest part of society have very low heritability of IQ because their environments are so massively varied.
Nisbett has some interesting things to say about cross cultural issues in IQ. But I think his most interesting insight, is that so many Americans now believe that maths talent is inherited, whereas many Asian immigrants to America believe it is the result of damned hard work. This is one of those paradoxes that the most conservative of Americans have embraced inherited ability (Bell Curve etc.) as a way to fend off social engineering via education, while the folk who are overwhelming the gifted programs of America, don't believe this and they seem to be right. There is little IQ difference: the Asian kids just work hard at maths!
For those who come to this book with strong preference towards the high heritability of intelligence, I would simply ask that you open mindedly consider the data and read the sources Nisbett quotes. We need your support to get moving on helping make society smarter. Nisbett has plenty of ideas about further research to really test what works: above all by applying experimental method and having randomly selected control groups for any program to test its real efficacy.
I read this book primarily to find ways to improve the education of my kids. As Nisbett is an "environmentalist' I assume he has given good cover of this....and yet his suggestions are relatively few in number and a mix of the obvious (ask you kids questions, encourage creative problem solving rather than give them the answer) and others where the details are scant (make good use of computer programs for math, science). Bottom-line: I am encouraged that I am not missing something that is clearly known to have a large benefit. I am left wondering about some of the details eg how to assess and compare computer based education programs but I know the areas I would focus on if I wanted to take things further.
PS If anyone has any info re the Venezuelan problem solving training run by Hernnstein, NIckerson et al and if similar work has been done since 1986 it would be great to hear of it. (referred to on p74 of Nisbett)
PPS The notes section is rather poor--often naming a whole book but not the relevant page/section. Neither notes nor references are numbered within the main text which seems v strange unless it was thought to do so would scare off a lay audience
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