Intelligence and How to Get It

I recently finished reading Richard E. Nisbett’s Intelligence and How to Get It. This is a compelling book on the factors that determine intelligence, academic and social achievement, and how these are measured. Nisbett refers to many studies and applies clear reasoning to argue that nurture is much more important than nature for thinking about and improving the intelligence and functionality of the population as a whole.

He talks about the effect of socioeconomic status. For example, the heritability of intelligence is much higher in upper-class families because their environments are already highly optimized to make people as smart as possible. In contrast, in more disadvantaged settings a small improvement in the environment has a much larger effect on intelligence than any congenital variation.

The book also analyzes how different social and cultural groups have been performing on intelligence and achievement metrics, and the apparent causes for those results. He touches on African-Americans, East Asians, and Jews as distinct groups in American society (as well as on previous groups that were the world’s intelligentsia in the past) to illustrate how cultural expectations play a role. He also mentions the juicy tidbit that we are getting smarter overall, probably due to the higher prevalence of cognitive tasks (such as reading and video game playing, for example!) in everyday life.

Nisbett discusses the child-rearing practices that foster intelligence. He emphasizes talking to one’s child in terms the child can understand, relating new ideas to old ones, and asking “known answer questions” where the child knows that the questioner knows the answer; this latter appears to be a big help in school. Most fundamental of all, however, is the knowledge that intelligence is malleable; those who believe this do in fact work harder and both measure higher in intelligence and achieve higher socially than those who think intelligence is intrinsically immutable.

It was very gratifying to read a solid book that confirms my opinions: intelligence and achievement, in the end, are largely a product of the environment. In the right setting, with hard work, people can indeed excel at cognitive tasks.

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