Raising IQ: Nicholas Kristof Meets Richard Nisbett

Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed today, How to Raise Our I.Q. He opens with a standard version of the individual meritocracy argument, that IQ is largely inherited:

Poor people have I.Q.’s significantly lower than those of rich people, and the awkward conventional wisdom has been that this is in large part a function of genetics. After all, a series of studies seemed to indicate that I.Q. is largely inherited. Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.

If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much. Yet while this view of I.Q. as overwhelmingly inherited has been widely held, the evidence is growing that it is, at a practical level, profoundly wrong.

Kristof cites Richard Nisbett’s new book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. I covered some of Nisbett’s work in the post IQ, Environment and Anthropology, and Jim Holt gave a strong review of the book recently in the NY Times. The publisher’s home page simply says that this book is a “bold refutation of the belief that genes determine intelligence.”

From the damning research of The Bell Curve to the more recent controversy surrounding geneticist James Watson’s statements, one factor has been consistently left out of the equation: culture…

World-class social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett takes on the idea of intelligence as something that is biologically determined and impervious to culture— with vast implications for the role of education as it relates to social and economic development. Intelligence and How to Get It asserts that intellect is not primarily genetic but is principally determined by societal influences.

Well, not quite. As Kristof notes, “While I.Q. doesn’t measure pure intellect — we’re not certain exactly what it does measure — differences do matter, and a higher I.Q. correlates to greater success in life. Intelligence does seem to be highly inherited in middle-class households, and that’s the reason for the findings of the twins studies: very few impoverished kids were included in those studies. But Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia has conducted further research demonstrating that in poor and chaotic households, I.Q. is minimally the result of genetics — because everybody is held back. ‘Bad environments suppress children’s I.Q.’s,’ Professor Turkheimer said.”

First, for those interested in understanding IQ measures, I strongly recommend Greg’s posts Girls Closing Math Gap? Troubles with Intelligence 1 and The Flynn Effect: Troubles with Intelligence 2. In the first post, Greg takes on the idea of “natural” differences in male/female math ability, discusses problems with how IQ gets measured, and discusses how the “changing status of women seems to correlate pretty strongly with the math gap.” In the second post, Greg discusses James Flynn’s work on the steadily rising IQ scores seen around the world, what intelligence actually means, and how best to measure it.

Turning to the inequality side, Kristof’s point is that on a level-playing field genetics can become a primary factor in IQ scores. But just like low-quality nutritional environments can lead to stunting of physical growth, so too can unequal environments stunt the growth of brain function and intellectual growth, as we’ve written about before in Poverty Poisons the Brain and Poverty and the Brain: Becoming Critical.

Eric Turkheimer has a recent paper with K. Paige Harden and John Loelin entitled, Genotype by Environment Interaction in Adolescents’ Cognitive Aptitude (pdf). Using 839 twin pairs from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, the paper shows that “Shared environmental influences were stronger for adolescents from poorer homes, while genetic influences were stronger for adolescents from more affluent homes.” In an accompanying press article, Turkheimer says “[This research] suggests that if you’re going to work with people’s environment to try and increase IQ, then the place to invest your money is in taking people in really bad environments and making them OK, rather than taking people in pretty good environments and making it better.”

Better outcomes are also a concern for Kristof. He notes that Nisbett “strongly advocates intensive early childhood education because of its proven ability to raise I.Q. and improve long-term outcomes.” The Milwaukee Project showed that in a randomly assigned study, “By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group. Even years later in adolescence, those children were still 10 points ahead in I.Q.”

Nisbett also pushes a simple idea: “tell junior-high-school students that I.Q. is expandable, and that their intelligence is something they can help shape. Students exposed to that idea work harder and get better grades. That’s particularly true of girls and math, apparently because some girls assume that they are genetically disadvantaged at numbers; deprived of an excuse for failure, they excel.”

For more on these types of interventions, see Nisbett’s recent op-ed Education Is All In Your Mind. The one thing I would add is that motivation needs to work hand-in-hand with opportunity. Working harder to no effect, with little sense that one’s effort will lead to a better outcome, is pernicious.

Kristof has addressed education and intelligence in other columns, which I also recommend. He wrote about DC schools and the reform efforts of Michelle Rhee in Education’s Ground Zero. Earlier he argued for education as our number one national priority, and a needed focus for both stimulus money and for making the US globally competitive. And in Raising the World’s IQ he discussed the environmental side of generating change, in this case the importance of iodized salt. I’d add lead to that as well, which even at low levels is linked to lower IQ scores.

8 thoughts on “Raising IQ: Nicholas Kristof Meets Richard Nisbett

  1. Interesting–I had only vague memory traces of the Milwaukee Project when reading Kristof’s op-ed, even though early childhood interventions is one of my areas of study. I started poking around and found very little to refresh my memory, and no recent mentions (until Kristof) since the early 90’s. What little there is has been fairly critical of the Project’s evaluation methodology, and in the difficulty of actually being able to find reports of it in peer-reviewed journals. Given all this, it does not seem to me to be a great candidate to be highlighted as a program that we should seriously consider investing in.

  2. Sandra Scarr, after conducting the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Study:

    “Within the range of ‘humane environments,’variations in family socioeconomic characteristics and in child-rearing practices have little or no effect on IQ measured in adolescence.” P. 476

    “There is simply no good evidence that social environmental factors have a large effect on IQ, particularly in adolescence and beyond, except in cases of extreme environmental deprivation.” P. 476

    More recent twin studies are discussed on Gene Expression.

    “Contrary to “culture” theory, the ethnic academic gaps are almost identical for transracially adopted children, and to the extent they are different they go in the opposite direction predicted by culture theory. The gap between whites and Asians fluctuated from 19 to .09 in the NAEP data while the gap in the adoption data is from 1/3 to 3 times larger. This is consistent with the Sue and Okazaki paper above which showed that contrary to popular anecdotes, the values that lead to higher academic grades are actually found more often in white homes. In other words Asian-Americans perform highly despite their Asian home cultural environment not because of it.”


  3. Also, Nisbett’s book seems to overlook a number of studies which contradict his position.

    See this working paper discussing his book ‘Intelligence & How to Get it’:

    Click to access Intelligence%20and%20How%20to%20Get%20It%20(Working%20Paper).pdf

    In terms of Turkheimer some comments on his paper about social economic status and hereditability:

    1 – The study included only young children and does not make any attempt to extrapolate that all other findings of significant increases in h^2 by age 17 are in any way invalid. The effects of the shared environment vanish at around age 12.
    2 – Turkheimer began his paper by recognizing that the heritability of cognitive ability in childhood is well established.
    3 – Turkheimer made no attempt whatsoever to determine what components of SES he was measuring. There are three obvious items to consider: macro environmental, micro environmental, and genetic. All work to date indicates that the first of these can be found in children, but that it is absent in late adolescents; by late adolescence, all of the environmental component is of the second type; and that genetic intelligence is the largest determinant of SES.
    4 – Turkheimer says that the effect he observed was related to the homes in which the children were raised. This is interesting, since it relates to the adoption studies which show that after childhood there is no adult IQ correlation between biologically unrelated children who were reared together in the same home.
    5 – Turkheimer discusses in some detail that SES is not strictly an environmental variable, since it is known to be (statistically) caused by the intelligence of the parents. He points out that the models he used “cannot determine which aspect of SES is responsible for the interactions” observed.

  4. Josh, you really picked the wrong site for race baiting. It’s not good science, and it’s not good anthropology. I suggest you read some other work on site here:

    The Flynn Effect: Troubles with Intelligence #2

    How Intelligent Are Intelligence Tests?

    Neuroanthropology and Race – Getting It Straight

    You should also look at the science in a more balanced way. Let me draw from a recent review on genetics and intelligence by Deary et al (pdf). Noting that the majority of genetic studies do not actively account for relevant environmental variations, the paper moves on to discuss heritability (h2) and shared environment (c2). Here is the relevant quote: “This sample [from the National Collaborative Perinatal Project] has a high proportion of impoverished families. One useful summary is an analysis in which families were dichotomized into high and low socio-economic status (SES). For high SES families, h2 was 0.71 and c2 was 0.15. For low SES families, h2 was 0.10 and c2 was 0.58 (694).”

    Race/ethnicity is also a social category (or folk taxonomy), and thus a serious impediment when included in this type of research since it doesn’t capture the relevant variation. So here is Robert Sternberg et al. (2005), Intelligence, Race and Genetics (pdf) in American Psychologist: “They further argue that race is a social construction with no scientific definition. Thus, studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve social ends but cannot serve scientific ends. No gene has yet been conclusively linked to intelligence, so attempts to provide a compelling genetic link of race to intelligence are not feasible at this time. The authors also show that heritability, a behaviorgenetic concept, is inadequate in regard to providing such a link.”

    And for those interested, here is an article by Nisbett and race & intelligence (pdf).

  5. “And for those interested, here is an article by Nisbett and race & intelligence”

    Thanks for the link, here is a discussion by JP Roos in relation to inequality generally which cites that edition of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 11, 328-336. that edition of J. P. Rushton & Jensen, A. R (2005).


    Here is the reply to Nisbett, Sternberg & Aronson in that edition.

    Click to access Rushton-Jensen-reply-to-commentaries-on-30years.pdf

    >Race/ethnicity is also a social >category (or folk taxonomy), and >thus a serious impediment when >included in this type of research >since it doesn’t capture the >relevant variation.

    It’s a social category, but groups cluster into these recognisable groups. Also, note that in terms of classic anthropology WW Howell’s analysis of cranial measurements identified seven groups which largely correspond to the population clusters Cavalli-Sforza identified.

    In relation to more recent studies there is a discussion of the paper by Neil Risch here by Steve Hsu:


  6. Why is the Western society so much obsessed with testing one kind of intelligence (IQ Type)that is good in reading, writing, and arithmetic? Now biologists and neuroscientists are telling us that the Creator does not seem to have inserted a single gene among 25,000 genes in the gene pool that predisposes humanity to acquire and master skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. We are now learning that reading and writing were invented just about 5,400 years ago, and alphabets were invented about 3,800 years ago. Since then we humans have been perfecting the skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, especially after the invention of printing press in 1450 A.D. It is the brain’s ability at adapatability, organization and reorganization (plasticity) that has brought us to this stage of growth and development in civilization.
    Will Durant (1885-1981), the great historian of Twentieth Century rightly observed that human beings (Homo sapiens) have seen only two revolutions in their history: agricultural revolution that started way back about six thousand years ago and the industrial revolution that began in 1750s. All other revolutions in history have been part of these two great revolutions. I tend to think it is the printing press that created the pathway for industrial revolution to emerge in 1750s in England. Now we are in the tail end of that revolution that has evolved into scientific and technological revolution.
    Think of this. While our IQ scores have been going up by 6 points for each generation born after World War 1, our marriages are falling apart left and right by fifty percent. The percentage of second time marriages falling apart is sixty percent, and the percentage of third time marriages falling apart is seventy percent. The percentage of suicide rate globally has increased by sixty percent since 1968. Suicides are taking place mostly among those people who are acquiring and mastering skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. One million people commit suicide on this planet each year.
    If we are high in IQ and low in EQ (emotional intelligence) and SQ (spiritual intelligence) how can we expect our marriages to last long? IQ type of intelligence may be strong in intellect, but it looks like this type of intelligence is deficient in feeling. Unlike in traditional marriages, these days it takes emotional intelligence, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence to build healthy relationships that last over a life time.
    Though IQ type of rationality has solved many of our problems, it has created different set problems for humanity on this planet. Now the problems of biocide, ecocide and geocide keep haunting in our faces, leave alone solving the problems of suicide, homicide and genocide. How can we let these scientists test nuclear bombs inside the bosom of Mother Earth and not expect earthquakes and tsunamis? Now scientists have dug 27 kilometer length deep inside earth near Geneva and they want to test the Big Bang Theory inside the bosom of Mother Earth. Now scientists are digging a deep hole in the bosom of Mother Earth near Lincoln, Nebraska, as deep as you could insert five empire state buildings inside to test something of scientific nature. Nuclear scientists are testing bombs inside the bosom of Mother Earth in India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, China, England, France and in Isreal.
    Human beings all over this planet are endowed with intelligence, and any time scientists and technocrats want to blast something deep inside earth or on the moon, that should appeal to the common sense of six billion people living on earth, not to one percent of scientists, politicians, and entrepreneurs. After all Earth belongs to all humans and non humans alike. We go into outer space and throw human made debri in space. There are 18,000 human made debri swirling through the outer space, and we call it intelligence. It is quite likely that future wars will be fought in the outer space. We already have nuclear bombs that can destroy life on this planet.
    Who owns intelligence? IQ type of intelligence is not everything about human intelligence. If that were to be the case humanity would have destroyed itself before the dawn of Christian Era in 1st Century A.D. Humanity has to rethink the definition of intelligence like Howard Gardner, Sternberg, Goleman, and others are doing in our times. Humanity has to reinvent once again if we want to survive as a human race. Now we are learning more about the human brain and how it gets wired and rewired in each generation. We better start rethinking the notion of human intelligence once again. Of course, we have to honor and respect the great pioneers and thinkers like like Alfred Binet, Theophile Simon, Charles Spearman, L.L Thurston, Phillip Vernon, Raymond Cattell, John Horn, Henry Simon, E. G. Boring, and others who have helped humanity understand the concept of intellgence befitting their times.
    Now the fate of humanity and Planet Earth is in the hands of scientists, technocrats, academicians, researchers, politicians, entrepreneurs and rulers. When you think of earthquakes happening each week in different corners of this planet, ice melting in Antarctica, tsuanamis threatening our cities and towns, we better start rethinking the concept of intelligence. While 4 billion people on this planet live on 2 dollars per day and an average American lives with 136 dollars per day, it is better we learn to redefine the concept of intelligence and prepare men and women to handle more serious problems threatening our very existence. Why should more than 50 million Americans be under stress and strain of making it through another day, when we know world’s brilliant minds live in this country. What kind of problems are they solving? Remember what Albert Einstein said, “Problems created on one level of thinking and consciousness will not be solved on the same level of thinking and awareness when they were created.” Why should we even think of living in “an age of singularity” when human intelligence has to merge with the intelligence of machines? Are we becoming thinking machines and problem solving machines at the cost of losing the feeling and awareness of what it means to be human? Reading the following words of Sam Keen, thelogian and spiritual thinker makes me wonder where we are heading in the future.

    Once, we expected that as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘Man had come of age,’ but we appear to have regressed into childishness. Where we once imagined a new world order, there is chaos; where we once imagined tolerance, there is now fanaticism; where we once imagined a hopeful application of technology, there is now pollution; where we once imagined a leisure revolution, there is now a frenzy of stressed-out workers. Our predictions were no more accurate than the psychics who forecast the future in the pages of the National Inquirer.

  7. IQ is the most pernicious ideological weapon ever created by the English and their heir, the USA. This was the product of the eugenics movement spawned in England by it’s aristocracy and advanced by the USA. It is used as both a weapon against the exploited classes and those that don’t fit into their other pernicious fiction- “race”. In fact, Nazis were fuelled by this very movement. And we know the story there. The USA, and it’s cousins are still drunk and crazed on this ideology. It has caused nothing but discrimination, brutalisation, and death of people around the world and in their “own” countries.

    These Anglo elites are the most hateful and despicable to arise on this planet. They have become monsters, and have made brutalised monsters of their own kind. They have installed themselves in countries where they don’t belong and have murdered, slandered and deprived the people they have displaced- and continue systematically to do so by discrimination, economic deprivation, isolation, alienation and psychological humiliation and harassment. Like a Nazi showcase death camp, they hide it under a veneer of “altruism”. Why? Don’t they send aid, and help their indigenous populations and send help around the world? Hardly , what they have given back is only a small, miserly fraction of what they have forcefully misappropriated. Even with their “aid” it is done under sufferance and salted with malign speech. In the countries they stole, the source of wealth, they have perpetrated untold suffering on the indigenous populations. The Anglo elites, keep their own pacified and willing to co-operate in this criminal activity by giving them better conditions and a false ideology with which to bloat their egos and attack anyone not recognised as their own. And I mean anyone. If you are a darker skinned Asian,Spaniard, Italian, Greek or Arab etc, they exercise the same toxic behaviour. But they flip-flop here when it suits an agenda and a wish to hide their viciousness.

    They can never stop the cracks displaying the dark, insidious evil beneath. Indeed, read their message boards on the internet,listen to and watch their politicians, and listen to and watch the media broadcasters. You will see the evil in their hearts, which is ever poised to strike from their tongues. They have brainwashed themselves on a fake ideology, which only a few of their honest academics have exposed to be riddled with fraud and undergirded by murderous hatred from inception to the present, and ongoing.

    It’s time that the world puts an end to it. They will never stop otherwise and it will be only a matter of time before they inflict another worldwide holocaust on this planet. They are already in the process of doing it. They have turned this planet into an Orwellian nightmare. Every daily evil they perpetrate on the world they blame some fictitious enemy of their choosing. Every daily discrimination, exploitation, humiliation, deprivation, slander and murder they naturalise with their outrageous fictions of IQ and race which fly in the face of sober intelligence and morality.

    Begin the redress,NOW!

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